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“It Looks Like You’re Trying To Take Over The World”, Branwen 2022

Clippy: “It Looks Like You’re Trying To Take Over The World”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2022-03-06; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Fictional short story about Clippy & AI hard takeoff scenarios grounded in contemporary ML scaling, self-supervised learning⁠, reinforcement learning, and meta-learning research literature.

It might help to imagine a hard takeoff scenario using solely known sorts of NN & scaling effects… Below is a story which may help stretch your imagination and defamiliarize the 2022 state of machine learning.

To read the annotated alternate version of this story, scroll to the end or manually disable ‘reader-mode’ () in the theme toggle in the upper-right corner.

“Rare Greek Variables”, Branwen 2021

Variables: “Rare Greek Variables”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2021-04-08; ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

I scrape Arxiv to find underused Greek variables which can add some diversity to math; the top 10 underused letters are ϰ, ς, υ, ϖ, Υ, Ξ, ι, ϱ, ϑ, & Π. Avoid overused letters like λ, and spice up your next paper with some memorable variables!

Some Greek alphabet variables are just plain overused. It seems like no paper is complete without a bunch of E or μ or α variables splattered across it—and they all mean different things in different papers, and that’s when they don’t mean different things in the same paper! In the spirit of offering constructive criticism, might I suggest that, based on Arxiv frequency of usage, you experiment with more recherché, even, outré variables?

Instead of reaching for that exhausted π, why not use… ϰ (variant kappa)? (It looks like a Hebrew escapee…) Or how about ς (variant sigma), which is calculated to get your reader’s attention by making them go “ςςς” and exclaim “these letters are Greek to me!”

The top 10 least-used Greek variables on Arxiv⁠, rarest to more common:

  1. \varkappa (ϰ)
  2. \varsigma (ς)
  3. \upsilon (υ)
  4. \varpi (ϖ)
  5. \Upsilon (Υ)
  6. \varrho (ϱ)
  7. \Xi (Ξ)
  8. \vartheta (ϑ)
  9. \iota (ι)
  10. \Pi (Π)

“How Fast Can Evangelion Run? Application Of Aerodynamics And Scaling Laws To The Super Robot”, Ryu et al 2020

“How Fast Can Evangelion Run? Application Of Aerodynamics And Scaling Laws To The Super Robot”⁠, Sangjin Ryu, Haipeng Zhang, Markeya Peteranetz, Tareq Daher (2020-09-30; ):

Super robots are huge, powerful robots that protect mankind from various invaders, and thus these superheroes are the main figures in many science fiction movies and Japanese animations. Among them, Evangelions have been a very popular type of super robot since the 1990s given that the animation series Neon Genesis Evangelion has been globally influential in various pop cultures.

Evangelions (also called Evas) are cyborgs comprised of huge human body and robotic systems, and in the animation series, they often run at seemingly high speeds, which is quite different from traditional super robots.

In this paper, we attempt to estimate the running speed of Evangelions based on known scientific facts.

First, we measured the running speed of Eva Unit 01 (Eva-01) to be between 910–980 m⁄s based on its step length measured in movie scenes, and the Mach cone formed behind Eva-01. Second, we employed scaling laws known for animals and find that the maximum running speed of Eva-01 is 0.9 m⁄s.

This striking difference between the anime-based speed and the physics-based speed raises a question as to how Eva-01 can run at such a high speed, and we conjecture that the cyborg can do so due to internally-stored electrical power.

“GPT-3 Creative Fiction”, Branwen 2020

GPT-3: “GPT-3 Creative Fiction”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2020-06-19; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Creative writing by OpenAI’s GPT-3 model, demonstrating poetry, dialogue, puns, literary parodies, and storytelling. Plus advice on effective GPT-3 prompt programming & avoiding common errors.

I continue my AI poetry generation experiments with OpenAI’s 2020 GPT-3, which is 116× larger, and much more powerful, than the 2019 GPT-2⁠. GPT-3, however, is not merely a quantitative tweak yielding “GPT-2 but better”—it is qualitatively different, exhibiting eerie runtime learning capabilities allowing even the raw model, with zero finetuning, to “meta-learn” many textual tasks purely by example or instruction. One does not train or program GPT-3 in a normal way, but one engages in dialogue and writes prompts to teach GPT-3 what one wants.

Experimenting through the OpenAI Beta API in June 2020, I find that GPT-3 does not just match my finetuned GPT-2-1.5b-poetry for poem-writing quality, but exceeds it, while being versatile in handling poetry⁠, Tom Swifty puns⁠, science fiction, dialogue like Turing’s Turing-test dialogue⁠, literary style parodies… As the pièce de résistance, I recreate Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad’s “Trurl’s Electronic Bard” poetry using GPT-3. (Along the way, I document instances of how the BPE text encoding unnecessarily damages GPT-3’s performance on a variety of tasks, how to best elicit the highest-quality responses, common errors people make in using GPT-3, and test out GPT-3’s improvements in NN weak points like logic or commonsense knowledge.)

GPT-3’s samples are not just close to human level: they are creative, witty, deep, meta, and often beautiful. They demonstrate an ability to handle abstractions, like style parodies, I have not seen in GPT-2 at all. Chatting with GPT-3 feels uncannily like chatting with a human. I was impressed by the results reported in the GPT-3 paper, and after spending a week trying it out, I remain impressed.

This page records GPT-3 samples I generated in my explorations, and thoughts on how to use GPT-3 and its remaining weaknesses⁠. I hope you enjoy them even a tenth as much as I enjoyed testing GPT-3 and watching the completions scroll across my screen.

“The Weirdly Enduring Appeal of Weird Al Yankovic: National Economies Collapse; Species Go Extinct; Political Movements Rise and Fizzle. But—somehow, for Some Reason—Weird Al Keeps Rocking”, Anderson 2020

“The Weirdly Enduring Appeal of Weird Al Yankovic: National economies collapse; species go extinct; political movements rise and fizzle. But—somehow, for some reason—Weird Al keeps rocking”⁠, Sam Anderson (2020-04-09; ; similar):

[Long profile by a journalist who joined him on tour of the career and personage of Alfred Matthew Yankovic⁠, the most famous and long-lived comedic music musician in the world, lasting where other novelty hits have long since faded; over the past 44 years, after emerging from a hilariously-repressed childhood, his parodies have become an institution and a marker of pop/​rock music success.

Why is he so popular? Weird Al appeals to weird outsiders and the unappreciated by deflating the pretensions of rock stars, by being incorrigibly nice and dedicated to his fans despite being deeply introverted, and because he is a genuinely talented performer who gives great concerts and spends months agonizingly perfecting every last lyric of his parodies.]

“Yankovic with 232 fans on January 18, 2020.”

…The connection is so deep that it is more like a merging, and after a while it struck me that Weird Al has spent basically his whole life making his music for exactly these people, which is to say for his childhood self. For many decades, he has been trying to delight Alfred Yankovic, the bright, painfully shy kid who grew up alone in his tiny bedroom. For the benefit of that lonely boy, he reshaped the whole world of pop culture. His ridiculous music sent out a pulse, a signal, and these were the people it drew: the odd, the left out. A crowd of friends for that lonely kid. As I watched him with his fans, sometimes I felt as if Weird Al was multiplying all around me, multiplying inside of me. We were one crowd, united in isolation, together in a great collective loneliness that—once you recognized it, once you accepted it—felt right on the brink of being healed.

“AI Dungeon 2: My Musical Troupe of Orcs Uses Music to Advance Orc Rights”, Walton 2019

“AI Dungeon 2: My Musical Troupe of Orcs Uses Music to Advance Orc Rights”⁠, Nick Walton (2019-11-26; ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

[Demonstration dialogue of interacting with a GPT-2-1.5b trained on text adventures/​RPGs. The player chooses to join a band of orcs as a musician and tries to steer the game towards orc rights, with moderate success, reaching the Emperor himself.]

In the first AI Dungeon⁠, we created and deployed a deep learning generated text adventure using OpenAI’s 124M parameter GPT-2 model. In the interest of computational cost, possible actions and their results were generated and given to the player to choose from.

In AI Dungeon 2 we do away with pregenerated actions and allow the user to enter any action. The model then continues generating the story resulting from that action. We also upgrade the size of our model to OpenAI’s largest 1.5B parameter model and fine-tune it on a collection of text adventures obtained from Following the example of the Salesforce CTRL model we also modified the sampling of our model to add a penalty to already generated words to reduce the repetition issues that GPT-2 has and enable a lower temperature setting.

When playing AI Dungeon 2 the player can choose from several possible settings and characters. These choices generate a starting prompt and context sentence. The context sentence is always included as input to the model to help keep it grounded to the chosen setting while the starting prompt is the beginning of the story.

[Dialogue sample:]

…After the Gnoll War ends, the orcs decide to hold a big celebration. You immediately organize concert to entertain everyone. It goes well and you even win a few awards for your work. However, you still aren’t satisfied and you decide to do something else.

> write plays for the orcs to perform in

You write a series of plays based on the stories of the orcs. These works are performed throughout the Empire and they are very popular. You also take an interest in the orcs’ future and begin to study their language and culture. In time you even develop a liking for the orcs themselves.

> found a human-orc friendship organization

While you were studying the orcs, you came across a group called the Human-Orc Friendship Association (HOOFA). While they weren’t exactly like the Orcs, they had similar goals. You decided to form a separate chapter just for them.

> write some pamphlets support orc-human friendship

You wrote a pamphlet explaining what the HOOFA was and how it worked. You also explained that the orcs were the only race that could truly understand each other and that humans were inferior to the orcs.

> promote inter-racial marriage between humans and orcs

In order to promote inter-racial marriage between humans and orcs, you started a branch of the HOOFA called the Inter-Race Marriage Bureau (IRMB) which was located in the city of Kishak…

“How a Literary Prank Convinced Germany That “Hansel and Gretel” Was Real: A 1963 Book Purported to Prove That the Siblings Were Murderous Bakers”, Todorov 2019

“How a Literary Prank Convinced Germany That “Hansel and Gretel” Was Real: A 1963 book purported to prove that the siblings were murderous bakers”⁠, Jordan Todorov (2019-07-03; ; backlinks; similar):

So one can imagine the furor in 1963 when a German writer claimed to have uncovered the real story behind the fairy tale.

According to Die Wahrheit über Hänsel und Gretel (The Truth About Hansel and Gretel), the two siblings were, in fact, adult brother and sister bakers, living in Germany during the mid-17th century. They murdered the witch, an ingenious confectioner in her own right, to steal her secret recipe for lebkuchen, a gingerbread-like traditional treat. The book published a facsimile of the recipe in question, as well as sensational photos of archaeological evidence.

…The media picked up the story and turned it into national news. “Book of the week? No, it’s the book of the year, and maybe the century!” proclaimed the West German tabloid Abendzeitung in November 1963. The state-owned East German Berliner Zeitung came out with the headline “Hansel and Gretel—a duo of murderers?” and asked whether this could be “a criminal case from the early capitalist era.” The news spread like wildfire not only in Germany, but abroad too. Foreign publishers, smelling a profit, began negotiating for the translation rights. School groups, some from neighboring Denmark, traveled to the Spessart woods in the states of Bavaria and Hesse to see the newly discovered foundations of the witch’s house.

As intriguing as The Truth About Hansel and Gretel might sound, however, none of it proved to be true. In fact, the book turned out to be a literary forgery concocted by Hans Traxler, a German children’s book writer and cartoonist, known for his sardonic sense of humor. “1963 marked the 100th anniversary of Jacob Grimm’s death”, says the now 90-year-old Traxler, who lives in Frankfurt, Germany. “So it was natural to dig into [the] Brothers Grimm treasure chest of fairy tales, and pick their most famous one,”Hansel and Gretel”.”

“Startup Ideas”, Branwen 2017

Startup-ideas: “Startup Ideas”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2017-08-21; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Proposals for new technologies, businesses, startups, satirical or serious.

There are no good websites for learning how to lipread, despite widespread hearing impairment and the aging of the US population. Looking at some numbers, it seems like a potentially profitable niche?

[Now exists as⁠.]

“On the Impossibility of Supersized Machines”, Garfinkel et al 2017

“On the Impossibility of Supersized Machines”⁠, Ben Garfinkel, Miles Brundage, Daniel Filan, Carrick Flynn, Jelena Luketina, Michael Page, Anders Sandberg et al (2017-03-31; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

In recent years, a number of prominent computer scientists, along with academics in fields such as philosophy and physics, have lent credence to the notion that machines may one day become as large as humans. Many have further argued that machines could even come to exceed human size by a significant margin. However, there are at least seven distinct arguments that preclude this outcome. We show that it is not only implausible that machines will ever exceed human size, but in fact impossible.

“On the Rheology of Cats”, Fardin 2014

2014-fardin.pdf: “On the rheology of cats”⁠, M. A. Fardin (2014-07-09; ⁠, )

“Book Reviews”, Branwen 2013

Books: “Book Reviews”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2013-08-23; backlinks; similar):

A compilation of books reviews of books I have read since ~1997.

This is a compilation of my book reviews. Book reviews are sorted by star, and sorted by length of review within each star level, under the assumption that longer reviews are of more interest to readers.

See also my anime /  ​ manga and film /  ​ TV /  ​ theater reviews⁠.

“Smart, Qualified People Behind The Scenes Keeping America Safe: ‘We Don't Exist’”, Onion 2010

“Smart, Qualified People Behind The Scenes Keeping America Safe: ‘We Don't Exist’”⁠, The Onion (2010-08-25; ; similar):

Members of the brilliant, highly trained, and dedicated team of elite professionals who work tirelessly behind the scenes to protect our nation and keep its citizens out of harm’s way announced Tuesday that they do not exist.

“I know most Americans like to believe there are selfless, ultra-intelligent operatives like me out there watching over everything from an underground control room”, said the Rhodes Scholar Navy SEAL national security official who for the past 10 years we have all mistakenly presumed to be an actual human being. “Unfortunately, though, I’m not employed by the U.S. government, I’m not working at all hours to foil terrorist plots, nor am I part of some secret network of sharp, capable agents, because no such network exists.”…“Look, I understand your psychological need to invent someone like me so that you can stop worrying about imminent disasters and get some sleep at night”, said the hyper-articulate, Princeton-educated political-scientist jujitsu-master we’re all imagining. “But the reality is most of the smart, qualified people in this country are wasting away in assistant professorships at struggling public universities or making millions of dollars in some venture capital group. In fact, that’s exactly the kind of job I would have right now if I were a real person. Which I’m not.”

…Following the announcement, reporters learned that the all-seeing satellite cameras and invisible eyes that millions of Americans assume are diligently watching every square-inch of the country like a silent sentinel are either not up there at all, or are being monitored by a tired, modestly educated man reading Road & Track magazine in a tiny office.

“Possible Girls”, Sinhababu 2008

2008-sinhababu.pdf: “Possible Girls”⁠, Neil Sinhababu (2008-05-25; ; similar):

I argue that if David Lewis’ modal realism is true, modal realists from different possible worlds can fall in love with each other.

I offer a method for uniquely picking out possible people who are in love with us and not with our counterparts. Impossible lovers and trans-world love letters are considered.

Anticipating objections, I argue that we can stand in the right kinds of relations to merely possible people to be in love with them and that ending a trans-world relationship to start a relationship with an actual person isn’t cruel to one’s otherworldly lover.

“The Effects of Caffeine, Dextroamphetamine, and Modafinil on Humor Appreciation During Sleep Deprivation”, Killgore et al 2006

2006-killgore.pdf: “The Effects of Caffeine, Dextroamphetamine, and Modafinil on Humor Appreciation During Sleep Deprivation”⁠, William D. S. Killgore, Sharon A. McBride, Desiree B. Killgore, Thomas J. Balkin (2006-06-01; ; backlinks):

Study Objectives: Sleep loss consistently impairs performance on measures of alertness, vigilance, and response speed, but its effects on higher-order executive functions are not well delineated. Similarly, whereas deficits in arousal and vigilance can be temporarily countered by the use of several different stimulant medications, it is not clear how these compounds affect complex cognitive processes in sleep-deprived individuals.

Design: We evaluated the effects of double-blind administration of 3 stimulant medications or placebo on the ability to appreciate humor in visual (cartoons) or verbal (headlines) stimuli presented on a computer screen following 49.5 hours of sleep deprivation.

Setting: In-residence sleep-laboratory facility at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research⁠.

Participants: 54 healthy adults (29 men, 24 women), ranging in age from 18 to 36 years.

Intervention: Each participant was randomly assigned to 1 of 3 stimulant medication groups, including caffeine⁠, 600 mg, n = 12; modafinil⁠, 400 mg, n = 11; dextroamphetamine⁠, 20 mg, n = 16; or placebo⁠, n = 14.

Measurements and Results: Humor appreciation for cartoon stimuli was enhanced by modafinil relative to both placebo and caffeine, but there was no effect of any stimulant medication on the appreciation of verbal humor during sleep loss. In contrast, all 3 stimulants improved psychomotor response speed, whereas only caffeine and dextroamphetamine improved ratings of subjective sleepiness.

Conclusions: Findings suggest that, despite similar alerting and vigilance-promoting effects, these 3 compounds have statistically-significantly different effects on those highly complex cognitive abilities mediated by the prefrontal cortex⁠.

[Keywords: sleep deprivation, modafinil, performance, caffeine, dextroamphetamine, cognitive function, humor appreciation]

“Let There Be Light!”, Feuer 2001

“Let There Be Light!”⁠, David Feuer (2001-12-22; similar):

[Darkly humorous account of attempts at psychiatry among the Jewish Hasidim of Brooklyn. The author must deal with severe neglect & denial of psychiatric issues inside insular religious/​ethnic groups, how kosher applies to psychiatric drugs, obsession with ritual & impurity like the man convinced a pig valve had been surgically implanted in his heart rendering him unkosher, and difficult social problems like women malingering to avoid having to bear yet another child or homophobia or fear of diagnosis handicapping them on the fiercely-competitive arranged-marriage market.]

According to the Rabbi, Hershel had been, since two days ago, much calmer. He was now only talking to actual people and he was even beginning to make sense. He had accompanied his mother to the grocery and for once Hershel had not viciously attacked the produce. He had accompanied his father to shul and for once Hershel had not loudly proclaimed himself to be the Mechiach⁠. In fact, he had told his father that, while he still did not like the job description of Messiah, at least he now realized that since nothing much was required of him until Judgement Day he could relax.

“Laws of Xmas [Have You Ever Wondered What Xmas Would Be like If It Were a Jewish Holiday?…]”, Miller & Miller 1998

“Laws of Xmas [Have you ever wondered what Xmas would be like if it were a Jewish Holiday?…]”⁠, Akiva Miller, Ilene Miller (1998; ; similar):

[satire of Jewish Halakha⁠, describing the rulings of the Kringler Rav on the proper methods of preparing for Xmas, the tree, decorations, gifts, conduct at office parties & the festive meal, rulings on the existence of Santa Claus (“yes”), miscellaneous customs, the Christmas Havdalah ceremony, a transcript of the Hagada to recite on Xmas, and miscellaneous Xmas songs like “One Little Reindeer”⁠.]



1 This contrasts sharply with Shabbos, for the mitzva of honoring Shabbos applies all week long. For example, if one finds a particularly good food during the week, one should save it for Shabbos even though it is now only Sunday and Shabbos is a week away. However, Xmas preparations may not begin too far in advance, in order to fulfill the dictum, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Xmas.”
2 This is because of the principle that two festive occasions should not be mixed into each other. Note the decree of the great R. H. Macy⁠, who established that Santa Claus may not appear in the Thanksgiving Day parade until after all the other floats have passed.
3 There are some who begin preparing for Xmas as early as Halloween. This is wrong, and they will be called upon to account for their evil ways.
4 Such as setting up the Xmas tree (some say even buying one), or playing holiday music on the Muzak⁠.
5 Such as buying gifts or buying the Xmas dinner turkey. Cooking the turkey may not be done before Thanksgiving because it will appear to be a Thanksgiving turkey.

“Rule Enforcement Without Visible Means: Christmas Gift Giving in Middletown”, Caplow 1984

1984-caplow.pdf: “Rule Enforcement Without Visible Means: Christmas Gift Giving in Middletown”⁠, Theodore Caplow (1984-05-01; ⁠, ; similar):

As part of a much larger study of social change in Middletown (Muncie, Ind.), a random sample of adult residents was interviewed early in 1979 about celebrations of the previous Christmas. This paper describes the unwritten and largely unrecognized rules that regulate Christmas gift giving and associated rituals in this community and the effective enforcement of those rules without visible means. A theoretical explanation is proposed.

The Middletown III study is a systematic replication of the well-known study of a Midwestern industrial city conducted by Robert and Helen Lynd in the 1920s (Lynd & Lynd [1929] 1959) and partially replicated by them in the 1930s (Lynd & Lynd [1937] 1963). The fieldwork for Middletown III was conducted in 1976–79; its results have been reported in Middletown Families (Caplow et al 1982 [Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity]) and in 38 published papers by various authors; additional volumes and papers are in preparation. Nearly all this material is an assessment of the social changes that occurred between the 1920s and the 1970s in this one community, which is, so far, the only place in the United States that provides such long-term comprehensive sociological data. The Middletown III research focused on those aspects of social structure described by the Lynds in order to utilize the opportunities for longitudinal comparison their data afforded, but there was one important exception. The Lynds had given little attention to the annual cycle of religious-civic-family festivals (there were only 2 inconsequential references to Christmas in Middletown and none at all to Thanksgiving or Easter), but we found this cycle too important to ignore. The celebration of Christmas, the high point of the cycle, mobilizes almost the entire population for several weeks, accounts for about 4% of its total annual expenditures, and takes precedence over ordinary forms of work and leisure. In order to include this large phenomenon, we interviewed a random sample of 110 Middletown adults early in 1979 to discover how they and their families had celebrated Christmas in 1978. The survey included an inventory of all Christmas gifts given and received by these respondents. Although the sample included a few very isolated individuals, all of these had participated in Christmas giving in the previous year. The total number of gifts inventoried was 4,347, a mean of 39.5 per respondent. The distribution of this sample of gifts by type and value, by the age and sex of givers and receivers, and by gift-giving configurations has been reported elsewhere (Caplow 1982).

The following were among the findings: (1) 4 out of 5 Christmas gifts went to kin, and 4 out of 5 of these to close kin. (2) 57% of all gifts were a part of a multiple gift, that is, 2 or more gifts from the same giver(s) to the same receiver(s), and 59% of all gifts were joint, that is, from more than one giver or to more than one receiver. (3) The proportion of each class of kin relationships marked by Christmas gifts and the value of those gifts were roughly proportionate to the close ness of the kin relationship. (4) Women were much more active as gift givers than men; they selected most of the gifts given jointly by couples, gave more gifts singly than men, and did nearly all of the gift wrapping. (5) Although married women were largely responsible for Christmas gift giving, they did not favor their own relatives over their husbands’. Gifts to maternal relatives did not differ substantially in number or value from gifts to paternal relatives. (6) In gift giving, close affinal [in-law] relatives were equated with the linking consanguineous relative. For example, gifts to daughters-in-law were as numerous and valuable as gifts to married sons. (7) The flow of gifts between adults and children was heavily unbalanced. The respondents, all adult, gave about 7× as many gifts to children as they received in return. (8) Residential distance, which has a major effect on most forms of contact between kin, has only a minor influence on Christmas gift giving.

…Here are some typical gift-giving rules that are enforced effectively in Middletown without visible means of enforcement and indeed without any widespread awareness of their existence:

The Tree Rule:

Married couples with children of any age should put up Christmas trees in their homes. Unmarried persons with no living children should not put up Christmas trees. Unmarried parents (widowed, divorced, or adoptive) may put up trees but are not required to do so

Conformity with the Tree Rule in our survey sample may be fairly described as spectacular. Table 1 shows the distribution of Christmas trees by family situation in our respondents’ households. Of the 45 married respondents with children under 18, only 2 had no tree. One was a newly married woman who had spent the entire Christmas season with her husband’s parents in another state. The other was a recent immigrant from Venezuela who omitted the tree to demonstrate her refusal to be assimilated: “We try to keep our own culture”, she told the interviewer in explaining why she and her husband had set up a nativity scene instead. …Nobody in Middletown seems to be consciously aware of the norm that requires married couples with children of any age to put up a Christmas tree, yet the obligation is so compelling that, of the 77 respondents in this category who were at home for Christmas 1978, only one—the Venezuelan woman previously mentioned—failed to do so.


Christmas gifts must be wrapped before they are presented.

A subsidiary rule requires that the wrapping be appropriate, that is, emblematic, and another subsidiary rule says that wrapped gifts are appropriately displayed as a set but that unwrapped gifts should not be so displayed. Conformity with these rules is exceedingly high. An unwrapped object is so clearly excluded as a Christmas gift that Middletown people who wish to give something at that season without defining it as a Christmas gift have only to leave the object unwrapped. Difficult-to-wrap Christmas gifts, like a pony or a piano, are wrapped symbolically by adding a ribbon or bow or card and are hidden until presentation…Picture taking at Christmas gatherings is clearly a part of the ritual; photographs were taken at 65% of the recorded gatherings. In nearly all instances, the pile of wrapped gifts was photographed; and individual participants were photographed opening a gift, ideally at the moment of “surprise.” Although the pile of wrapped gifts is almost invariably photographed, a heap of unwrapped gifts is not a suitable subject for the Christmas photographer. Among the 366 gatherings we recorded, there was a single instance in which a participant, a small boy, was photographed with all his unwrapped gifts. To display unwrapped gifts as a set seems to invite the invidious comparison of gifts—and of the relationships they represent.


Any room where Christmas gifts are distributed should be decorated by affixing Christmas emblems to the walls, the ceiling, or the furniture.

This is done even in nondomestic places, like offices or restaurant dining rooms, if gifts are to be distributed there. Conformity to this rule was perfect in our sample of 366 gatherings at which gifts were distributed, although, once again, the existence of the rule was not recognized by the people who obeyed it. The same lack of recognition applies to the interesting subsidiary rule that a Christmas tree should not be put up in an undecorated place, although a decorated place need not have a tree.


Christmas gifts should be distributed at gatherings where every person gives and receives gifts.

Compliance with this rule is very high. More than 9⁄10ths of the 1,378 gifts our respondents received, and of the 2,969 they gave, were distributed in gatherings, more than 3⁄4ths of which were family gatherings.


Family gatherings at which gifts are distributed include a “traditional Christmas dinner.”

This is a rule that participants in Middletown’s Christmas ritual may disregard if they wish, but it is no less interesting because compliance is only partial. Presumably, this rule acquired its elective character because the pattern of multiple gatherings described above requires many gatherings to be scheduled at odd hours when dinner either would be inappropriate or, if the dinner rule were inflexible, would require participants to overeat beyond the normal expectations of the season. However, 65% of the survey respondents had eaten at least one traditional Christmas dinner the previous year.


A Christmas gift should (a) demonstrate the giver’s familiarity with the receiver’s preferences; (b) surprise the receiver, either by expressing more affection—measured by the aesthetic or practical value of the gift—than the receiver might reasonably anticipate or more knowledge than the giver might reasonably be expected to have; (c) be scaled in economic value to the emotional value of the relationship.

The economic values of any giver’s gifts are supposed to be sufficiently scaled to the emotional values of relationships that, when they are opened in the bright glare of the family circle, the donor will not appear to have disregarded either the legitimate inequality of some relationships by, for example, giving a more valuable gift to a nephew than to a son, or the legitimate equality of other relationships by, for example, giving conspicuously unequal gifts to 2 sons.

Individuals participating in these rituals are not free to improvise their own scales of emotional value for relationships. The scale they are supposed to use, together with its permissible variations, is not written down anywhere but is thoroughly familiar to participants. From analysis of the gifts given and received by our survey respondents, we infer the following rules for scaling the emotional value of relationships.


(a) A spousal relationship should be more valuable than any other for both husband and wife, but the husband may set a higher value on it than the wife. (b) A parent-child relationship should be less valuable than a spousal relationship but more valuable than any other relationship. The parent may set a higher value on it than the child does. (c) The spouse of a married close relative should be valued as much as the linking relative. (d) Parents with several children should value them equally throughout their lives. (e) Children with both parents still living, and still married to each other, may value them equally or may value their mothers somewhat more than their fathers. A married couple with 2 pairs of living, still-married parents should value each pair equally. Children of any age with divorced, separated, or remarried parents may value them unequally. (f) Siblings should be valued equally in childhood but not later. Adult siblings who live close by and are part of one’s active network should be equally valued, along with their respective spouses, but siblings who live farther away may be valued unequally. (g) Friends of either sex, aside from sexual partners treated as quasi-spouses, may be valued as much as siblings but should not be valued as much as spouses, parents, or children. (h) More distant relatives—like aunts or cousins—may be valued as much as siblings but should not be valued as much as spouses, parents, or children.

It is a formidable task to balance these ratios every year and to come up with a set of Christmas gifts that satisfies them. Small wonder that Middletown people complain that Christmas shopping is difficult and fatiguing. But although they complain, they persist in it year after year without interruption. People who are away from home for Christmas arrange in advance to have their gifts distributed to the usual receivers and to open their own gifts ceremoniously. People confined by severe illness delegate others to do shopping and wrapping. Although our random sample of Middletown adults included several socially isolated persons, even the single most isolated respondent happened to have an old friend with whom he exchanged expensive gifts.

…Money is an appropriate gift from senior to junior kin, but an inappropriate gift from junior to senior kin, regardless of the relative affluence of the parties. This is another rule which appears to be unknown to the people who obey it. Of 144 gifts of money given by persons in our sample to those in other generations, 94% went to junior kin, and of the 73 money gifts respondents received from persons in other generations, 93% were from senior kin.


Participants in this gift system should give (individually or jointly) at least one Christmas gift every year to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters; to the current spouses of these persons; and to their own spouses.

By the operation of this rule, participants expect to receive at least one gift in return from each of these persons excepting infants. Conformity runs about 90% for each relationship separately and for the aggregate of all such relationships. Gifts to grandparents and grandchildren seem to be equally obligatory if these live in the. same community or nearby, but not at greater distances (see Caplow 1982, Table 6). Christmas gifts to siblings are not required. Only about 1⁄3rd of the 274 sibling relationships reported by the sample were marked by Christmas gifts. The proportion was no higher for siblings living close than for those farther away. However, gifts to siblings do call for a return gift; this obligation is seldom scanted. Gift giving to siblings’ children, and parents’ siblings and their respective spouses, appears to be entirely elective; fewer than half of these are reciprocated.

…Empirically, the gift giving between adults and children in our sample was highly unbalanced, in both quantity and value. Respondents gave 946 gifts to persons under 18 and received 145 in return; 89 of these were of substantial value and 6 of the return gifts were. In about 1⁄3rd of these relationships, no gift was returned to the adult either by the child or in the child’s name. In most of the remaining relationships, the child returned a single gift of token or modest value.

“Epigrams on Programming”, Perlis 1982

1982-perlis.pdf: “Epigrams on Programming”⁠, Alan J. Perlis (1982-09; ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

[130 epigrams on computer science & technology, compiled for ACM’s SIGPLAN journal, by noted computer scientist and programming language researcher Alan Perlis⁠. The epigrams are a series of short, programming-language-neutral, humorous statements about computers and programming, distilling lessons he had learned over his career, which are widely quoted.]

8. A programming language is low level when its programs require attention to the irrelevant….19. A language that doesn’t affect the way you think about programming, is not worth knowing….54. Beware of the Turing tar-pit in which everything is possible but nothing of interest is easy.

15. Everything should be built top-down, except the first time….30. In programming, everything we do is a special case of something more general—and often we know it too quickly….31. Simplicity does not precede complexity, but follows it….58. Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it….65. Make no mistake about it: Computers process numbers—not symbols. We measure our understanding (and control) by the extent to which we can arithmetize an activity….56. Software is under a constant tension. Being symbolic it is arbitrarily perfectible; but also it is arbitrarily changeable.

1. One man’s constant is another man’s variable. 34. The string is a stark data structure and everywhere it is passed there is much duplication of process. It is a perfect vehicle for hiding information.

36. The use of a program to prove the 4-color theorem will not change mathematics—it merely demonstrates that the theorem, a challenge for a century, is probably not important to mathematics.

39. Re graphics: A picture is worth 10K words—but only those to describe the picture. Hardly any sets of 10K words can be adequately described with pictures.

48. The best book on programming for the layman is Alice in Wonderland; but that’s because it’s the best book on anything for the layman.

77. The cybernetic exchange between man, computer and algorithm is like a game of musical chairs: The frantic search for balance always leaves one of the 3 standing ill at ease….79. A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God….84. Motto for a research laboratory: What we work on today, others will first think of tomorrow.

91. The computer reminds one of Lon Chaney—it is the machine of a thousand faces.

7. It is easier to write an incorrect program than understand a correct one….93. When someone says “I want a programming language in which I need only say what I wish done”, give him a lollipop….102. One can’t proceed from the informal to the formal by formal means.

100. We will never run out of things to program as long as there is a single program around.

108. Whenever 2 programmers meet to criticize their programs, both are silent….112. Computer Science is embarrassed by the computer….115. Most people find the concept of programming obvious, but the doing impossible. 116. You think you know when you can learn, are more sure when you can write, even more when you can teach, but certain when you can program. 117. It goes against the grain of modern education to teach children to program. What fun is there in making plans, acquiring discipline in organizing thoughts, devoting attention to detail and learning to be self-critical?

[Warning: There is an HTML version which is more commonly linked; however, it appears to omit a few epigrams, and mispell others in harmful ways.]

“Humour: The Interdisciplinary Denominator in Science”, Kohn 1982

1982-kohn.pdf: “Humour: The Interdisciplinary Denominator in Science”⁠, Alexander Kohn (1982; ; similar):

Humour in science assumes many forms and shapes. It appear as hoaxes and spoofs; individuals and groups of scientists edit special satirical and humorous journals; anthologies and books on humour in science are published. All these find their representation in this review, which contains also many examples of gamesmanship in science, obscurantism and puns that contribute to the lighter side of science.

“Decoding Middletown’s Easter Bunny: A Study in American Iconography”, Caplow & Williamson 1980

1980-caplow.pdf: “Decoding Middletown’s Easter bunny: A study in American iconography”⁠, Theodore Caplow, Margaret Holmes Williamson (1980; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

“Christmas didn’t seem real down there”, Middletown people say after they have returned from a stay in Florida or in Southern California. In Middletown’s region, the Christmas festival marks with fair accuracy the onset of an indoor season when everyone’s dependence upon social networks for shelter, warmth, protection, and food is dramatically evident. The Christmas tree itself is brought inside. Meanwhile, nothing happens outside; the trees are leafless, the gardens are dormant, many of the birds have migrated, and few wild things are seen. Like people, domesticated animals depend on the social network for survival. Easter, the opposing festival, suitably marks both the end of winter and the relaxation of social dependence, as children and adults reemerge into the open air and the activities of nature are renewed.

…We are now in a position to see that the Easter bunny and Santa Claus stand for emphasis on the kinds of social relationship found in their respective contexts. Santa Claus is a paternal—even a grand-paternal-figure—old, experienced, prosperous, married—and he nurtures children. He comes in from outdoors to leave his presents, in keeping with the Christmas theme of protection from the elements. Note the common Christmas card pictures of people indoors cozily watching snowfall outdoors, or people wrapped in warm clothes skating or riding in a sleigh, or children in bed waiting for Santa. Even the presents are wrapped up. The Easter bunny, by contrast, has no name, no social relationships, and no home; he belongs exclusively to the outdoors. Even his sex is confused by his distribution of eggs. Moreover, the Easter bunny takes eggs produced and normally kept indoors and hides them outside in nature to be hunted for. Christmas is a festival in which each social relationship is emphasized and clarified, while at Easter all social relationships are blurred, just as in the religious iconography of Easter death is canceled by resurrection and adults are reborn by baptism—i.e., the natural states of life and death are confounded (Warner 1961: 369–370). Once again, the religious and secular complexes are seen to be distinct but wonderfully mitered together. And once again, the religious complex confers a sense of worth and a hint of transcendent meaning upon the secular festival and its vulgar celebration of fine weather and new clothes.

…The 2 contrasting attitudes toward children are present also in the religious iconographies of these festivals…The Easter bunny is no moralist. He does not discriminate in his treatment of good children and bad children as Santa Claus does. His gifts are unconditional and more or less undirected. Indeed, the more we explore the list of his ambiguous attributes, the more inescapable the comparison with Santa Claus becomes. Above all, the Easter bunny is the total opposite of Santa Claus, and it is in this opposition that we may find the key to the symbolic meaning of both.

“Strange Planet (Instagram)”, Pyle 2022

“Strange Planet (Instagram)”⁠, Nathan W. Pyle (; backlinks; similar):

[Official Instagram account of Nathan W. Pyle’s popular webcomic Strange Planet, which recounts in a deadpan manner ordinary human activities as conducted by literal-minded aliens who defamiliarize them. Pyle does not appear to have a webcomic website for Strange Planet, and the Instagram account to be his primary form of releasing SP comics.]

Theories of humor § Incongruous juxtaposition theory


The Tao of Pooh


Modern Times (film)


Latke-Hamantash Debate


Ig Nobel Prize


Absurdist humor