I keep the subject constantly before me and wait till the first dawnings
open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.
Ladies and germs, Ms. Betsy Devine!
It had been a long time since I did a Sandhill Interview. I asked some friends if they could help me get back into it. Elaine “Kalilily” Frankonis introduced me to Betsy Devine and it felt good. Ever an acolyte to the ‘if it feels good do it” school of thought, I eased into an interview with this charming, bright, and witty woman. I sent her a few questions, then waited impatiently for her reply:
Hello, hello?? Are we doing it? Let me know if weâ€™re doing it or if weâ€™re not doing it. I used to know the difference but I am much older now. Perhaps youâ€™re older now too.
Hi Frank–Yes, sorry, I started a reply and then dropped it into unfinished drafts and ran off elsewhere. Yes she said yes she said yes she said yes she said at least I think it will be fun. I am going to be in Chicago in late May for Alex Golub’s conference, will you be there too?
Betsy Devine and David Weinberger at Digital Genres Conference
Frank Paynter: Yup. I’ll be there. Where are you in New Hampshire? Were you depressed when the Old Man slid off the mountain?
Betsy Devine: I think of myself as “New Hampshire” because I grew up there, in Manchester, now home of the Segway. But I now live in Cambridge, MA, and wake up each morning enchanted with the idea that I live in a really big city with ethnic foods and trolleys and lots of bookstores. (Friends from NYC think this is funny.)
Yes, I was very sad about the Old Man–I sent off my blogpost to the New York Times, hoping to nudge them into saying more about the event. They published my edited post as a letter, even adding nice gfx in their print edition. I’m glad I’ll get to meet you in Chicago; I like meeting bloggers! Betsy
Old Man of the Mountain: The Spirit Lives
May 7, 2003
To the Editor:
Re “Iconic Rock Face Succumbs to Age and Gravity” (news article, May 4):
Last week, a few tons of granite fell down a New Hampshire mountainside, injuring nobody. This heap of granite used to be special. It was New Hampshire’s landmark stone profile, our Old Man of the Mountain.
Daniel Webster wrote a poem about it. It was the subject of amateur sketches and watercolors before anybody invented the camera. Every New Hampshire kid was dutifully taken to admire the craggy stone face. After you looked at it for a while, you looked at the upside-down version reflected in Profile Lake. Then you and your folks could all go to drink local birch beer and hike in the Flume.
I grew up in New Hampshire, and though I don’t live there now, I took my two daughters to see the Old Man. Now I’m having a lonely feeling, thinking of generations stretching ahead who won’t see what I saw, what Daniel Webster saw.
I also grew up enjoying clean air and clean water, a strong Bill of Rights and a sense of being part of one human family. There wasn’t a thing I could have done to save the Old Man, but I’m going to keep working to pass that other stuff along.
BETSY DEVINE Cambridge, Mass., May 5, 2003
FP: What do you do in Cambridge Betsy? Are you a full time professional writer, or what? How long have you been writing professionally?
BD: Well, here’s a little blurb I wrote for my book proposal that does and doesn’t answer some of your questions:
“Betsy Devine has parlayed a master’s degree in engineering from Princeton into a high-powered 30-year sabbatical. She is the C++ programming genius behind “Funny Bits From Your Talking Chips,” whose free shareware version delighted Mac users worldwide and whose $25 version has sold exactly one copy. Her enormous collection of jokes, barely tapped by this book, is founded on years of nerd symbiosis in Princeton, Cambridge, and on the World Wide Web. Other distinctions include making microwave popcorn in Einstein’s kitchen and two years as captain of the Princeton Eulers–the world’s most mathematical softball team, and probably one of the few teams in history to have a Fields Medalist playing second base and a MacArthur Prize winner at shortstop (Betsy was worse than either.) Her weblog “Funny Ha-Ha Or Funny Peculiar?” is universally granted to be both.”
FP: Was that you on Niek Hockx blog? You maybe make a little money modeling?
BD: I was as surprised as anybody to learn I’d been having alien sex on Niek’s blog. Still, I can’t help feeling honored by such attention from an International Babe Magnet like Niek.
FP: I googled you a little and discovered that besides the humor, there’s a serious side of Betsy… “Longing for the Harmonies“… How long have you been writing professionally? Can you give me a bibliography?
BD: I’ve published two books, and I’m at work on a third, which will be even better!
* Absolute Zero Gravity: Science Jokes, Quotes, and Anecdotes (Betsy Devine and Joel E. Cohen, Fireside/ Simon and Schuster, 1992) was published at $8. It is now out of print–used paperbacks (when available) sell for about $25. Three reader reviews at Amazon.com describe it as “addictive,” side-splitting,” and “hilarious.”
* Longing for the Harmonies (Frank Wilczek and Betsy Devine, WW Norton, 1987) was a NY Times Notable Book of the Year
FP: I linked your rosaceae posting today with a little trillium humor. We’ll probably meet somewhere among the crucifers. How do you feel about sharing some personal background… children, mating, favorite ice cream, your opinions of Mark Morford and/or Gary Larson?
BD: I consider both mating and children excellent fun. My husband (Frank Wilczek) and I have two daughters–I try not to blog about family–they are a huge part of my life, but it’s hard enough figuring out where the privacy boundary lies for me, and I would hate to guess wrong for any of them. But I will say this–our daughter Amity just started her own blog, thanks to Dave Winer’s project over at Harvard.
I love Gary Larson and chocolate ice cream, not necessarily in that order. I look forward to reading more Mark Morford someday when I have more time to read more things I’m thinking about reading someday!
FP: It’s almost dinner time here… as I think about dinner (pot roast with cucumber/tomato salad) I’m led to wonder how you might deconstruct the humor in Chris Locke’s recipe posted today… funny ha-ha or funny twisted?
BD: I adore pot roast with any kind of salad. Some of the folks I admire (e.g. Jeneane Sessum) admire Chris Locke. But what would be the point of all his rage if he didn’t offend anyone? Wouldn’t he be disappointed if we all just chucked him under the chin and said “Aw, you’re so transgressive?” So I am fulfilling a useful cultural role when I admit I’m offended by a joke whose punchline is basically “battered women.”
FP: When you were in New Jersey did you ever run into any of the multi-talented Dysons, Esther or her dad or her brothers? Freeman Dyson and Gerard O’Neill informed my tech-imagination as a youngster through the science fiction writers that cribbed their ideas… colonies at Lagrange points, extraterrestrial civilizations with planetary spheres built around entire stars, atomic propelled space craft…
That Princeton scene is rich in food for thought. Lucky you to have spent so much time there!
I’m pretty curious about who you played softball with. Princeton Eulers is a delicious name for a sports team. I suppose you all went down to Bernoulli’s pizza for refreshment after the games. Care to name drop a little about some of the people you met on the softball diamond at Princeton?
BD: I *love* Esther‘s dad Freeman Dyson. I did get to know him at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), though he was not on my softball team. My Fields Medalist was Enrico Bombieri, who also designed a great team T-shirt. Our MacArthur Prize winner was my own husband Frank Wilczek–who despite his honors was a pretty darn good player. Frank’s T-shirt had number 88, the number of keys on a piano.
Okay, let me tell you two reasons that I love Freeman Dyson:
1) He and his wife Imme loved little children. They went out of their way to make friends with everyone’s kids in the most intelligent and sympathetic way.
2) When I started producing a (volunteer) newsletter for the IAS, he volunteered to write a monthly astronomy column. And then he wrote it, monthly, carefully, wittily, fascinatingly, always on time–and for zero dollars per article. Bear in mind, at this time Freeman could easily command huge lecture fees, huge book advances, and was regularly winning $100,000 prizes.
FP: Can I ask just one question about living with Frank Wilczek?… is the Lorentz medal solid gold?
I’m thinking about humor and Locke’s offensive, tasteless joke. I had thought to link it in the “cat pictures and recipes” section of my blog, but I’m not sure I want the odor leaking over into my own often tasteless blogspace. Early in my relationship with Beth, my wife, I ran across a feminist joke: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Answer: “That’s not funny!” I asked Beth the question and she didn’t miss a beat with the right answer. We were soon laughing together about it…. I’m sure there’s a point here. I guess one point would be the difference between awareness of what’s offensive and taking offense.
BD: Frank Wilczek is a lot of fun to live with, and I try very hard not to blog about him.
I love lots of jokes whose punchline is basically “women!” (or basically “men!”), including the feminist light bulb joke. It was the “battered” part I didn’t like, though I forget now what grumpy thing I said, and I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings. We women are joke-wise much better off than lawyers–those guys are the subject of some really dark punch lines.
A lot of what humor does is create shared spaces. It invites you into a warm and primitive circle of people laughing together.
Some people use jokes as a weapon, to create a small circle all laughing at someone who just got pushed out of the group. That’s what I think of as offensive humor–humor that’s meant to hurt someone while others laugh. You’re right that it’s better to be aware of offense, not consumed by it.
FP: How harmful do you think offensive material is to us as individuals and as a culture?
BD: Divisive humor (think of Rush Limbaugh) can be an ugly thing. Banning rude humor would do much more harm. Besides, can you think of a joke that would never offend anybody in any way?
I had fun writing about offensive and meta-offensive jokes in the “Learn To Write Funny” department and there are a lot of good jokes in there too!
FP: Here’s a joke I’ve always wondered about: Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, “Why the long face?”
What’s so funny about that? It cracks me up every time.
BD: Joke theorist walks into a bar, says “I have a theory about why we laugh at the horse joke.” Bartender says, “That’s not funny!” Admitting the bartender probably has it right, here are some thoughts:
- When we hear “walks into a bar”, we know it’s a joke, and the mental image of a horse (or a sandwich, or a neutrino) walking into a bar already makes us smile.
- If punch lines work by “congruity plus surprise”, this joke has both.
- Congruity–The punch line is something you’d expect a bartender to ask a normal customer.
- Surprise–The punch line is a pun–and when you finish doing the work of figuring out which meaning of “long face” applies to a horse, you feel kind of pleased with yourself.
- Surprise–The joke is so short–part of your surprise is that it’s over so fast.
FP: You’re quite supportive of Dr. Howard Dean’s candidacy. Many of us on the left have walked away from the Democrats, looking for more progressive alternatives. How do you feel about the prospects for re-awakening the Democratic Party and pulling it back away from the center into more of a choice for the American voter?
BD: The 2002 elections made it clear Democrats don’t win as a party of “me too!” We need our own distinct people-friendly vision, and a candidate of stature to represent them. I guess you can tell by looking at my blog, I think Dean’s the one!
FP: Do you blame Ralph Nader for the debacle of 2000?
BD: No….. the last place I want to pin blame is on a bunch of idealists who hoped to make things better.
FP: How do you feel about Dennis Kucinich then? Is his outspoken peace advocacy an asset or a liability in the current climate?
BD: I admire Kucinich’s ideas and his courage–but he needs to work on some presentation skills until he sounds confident and competent. I like Dean not just for his ideas, but because I think he can go out and win the election. Remember, I’m a practical, engineer type!
FP: What do you think of John Kerry? Is he too close to the center to benefit the party? Will the Kerry and Lieberman forces hold the power and assure Democrats another loss in 2004? How can that be prevented?
BD: Mmmm, (gazing into my crystal ball)–I predict–that sensible readers would skip right over my inexpert responses, even though it would take me an hour to write them. I am glad Howard Dean has a lot of smart people who know a lot more than I do advising him on issues like those you raise!
FP: Over the years have you always found a political candidate who made sense, or is Dean exceptional in your opinion? Perhaps those aren’t mutually exclusive.
BD: Have I always found a candidate who made sense? I wish! Dean is exceptional in lots of ways, e.g.:
- Dean tries to make his ideas very clear–even though most politicians try to make their ideas very vague.
- Dean fights for what he believes–he doesn’t apologize for it.
- I think Dean is the Democrat most likely to beat Bush.
FP: In Israel and Palestine there is a terrible conflict. A nation with security policies informed by the horror of World War II, and a post-war “survival of the fittest” UN policy faces a displaced people who have come to believe that the only clean acts in the face of their own oppression are nihilistic. The Bush administration backs the Israelis. My own consciousness was shaped in that World War II context and I still think of Israel as an underdog surrounded by countries that would wipe it out. Yet there are Palestinian humanitarian issues that are ever more compelling. Is there a “right path” for the Democrats to follow that is different from the Bush approach to middle eastern foreign policy?
BD: My history of attitudes looks like yours. I wish I knew what a good solution was–even a not-so-good-but-better-than-now solution. Professor Issawi of Princeton had this to say of the Middle East. “God sent Moses, and Moses couldn’t fix it. He sent Jesus, and Jesus couldn’t fix it. He sent Mohammed and Mohammed couldn’t fix it. You think you are going to fix it?”
FP: Do you think Syria will be next on the list of countries we invade over there?
BD: I hope we aren’t going to invade any more countries–I think even Congress now feels Bush has had two bites at that apple.
FP: I feel a certain chill on my rights to free speech even discussing these matters. Do you share that concern?
BD: Not yet, as you can tell by the Bush jokes on my website.
FP: I’ve been a pop-physics fan for years. As an undergraduate I was a beater in the bubble chamber jungles, helping the quark hunters flush their prey. I scanned and edited film from Argonne labs for a few years as a part time job.
BD: What a great job–or more accurately, what an inspiring description of an interesting job. Did you think of it that way then, were you inspired at the time? My undergrad part-time jobs were far less grand–waitress and art-class model. In my mind, I am now reconfiguring that waitress job as “feeding hungry people,” and realizing that if I’d thought of it that way I probably wouldn’t have slopped ice water onto one very annoying customer..
FP: Art class model? So that MAY have been you on Niek’s blog? Around the time your book was published, there was a burst of pop-physics publishing. A couple of books that I read then come to mind. “Dancing Wu Li Masters” and “The Quark and the Jaguar.” Chaos theory, fractals, and non-linear math was big then too in the pop-smart category. We seem to have absorbed that information from a pop cultural perspective and moved on to other themes with which I am less in touch. Anyway, have you read some of these other pop-physics books?
BD: Frank, I regret to say I haven’t read any of the books you mention. I’ve read all the Feynman books though–he was a cool guy!
FP: At Sterling Hall on the UW campus where the High Energy Physics research was done, there was a quantum improvement in restroom graffiti compared with other campus venues. There was, I remember, an ongoing interchange between faux-Abelard and faux-Eloise. But my favorite message from that rest room wall was: “Raisins are physics.” Do you think feminism and the more egalitarian access to advanced degree programs has improved the quality of graffiti in campus women’s rest rooms?
BD: In early-seventies Princeton, biology department women’s rest room graffiti was written on yellow legal pads, taped to the wall. People would write paragraphs–or more–about what the surprises of being vastly out-numbered by men everywhere you went. (The grad school had just started admitting women, and the undergrads were still exclusively male.) It was funny, not angry stuff. I guess it spoiled me for later rest-room graffiti experiences, though I admit being charmed by NH rest-room graffiti, very heavily into the theme of “Annie loves Bill.”
FP: Tom Veatch says, “Humor is pain that doesnâ€™t hurt.” Do you ever blog in the nude?
BD: Do I blog in the nude? Don’t we all? Sometimes I wear clothes on top of the nudity, of course–New England weather can be unforgiving….
FP: Hereâ€™s a link to over 100 clichÃ©d expressions. What would it take to make them funny?
BD: What a fun question! The list of annoying cliched proverbs is fun to read–but not funny. Part of the problem is that lists aren’t funny. Even jokes are less funny when stuck in a list of jokes. IMO, that’s because real laughter is an involuntary response, a kind of release of tension built up by the joke. Picture the joke itself as–errrr–something like foreplay? So if jokes in a list of jokes get read too fast, and you rush through them double-time, joke after joke after joke–you are shortchanging the anticipation that makes any punch line funny–then you are shortchanging the afterglow of savoring the one you just enjoyed.
Stand-up comedians work hard on their timing. If a comic rushes into a brand-new joke when the audience hasn’t stopped laughing at the first one, Robert Provine claims that such “premature ejokulation” creates disappointing “laftus interruptus.”
As for cliches, there are lots of jokes made from cliches. They take the familiar basis and add a surprise. Lots of pun jokes (mostly groaners) build up to some mangled cliche punch line–“The squaw of the hippopotamus is equal to the sum of the squaws of the other two hides” for example.
Even less PC, but one I like is this use of “horticulture” in a sentence: You can lead a horticulture but you cannot make her think.
FP: Whatâ€™s your earliest recollection of this abstracted interest in humor?
BD: I was writing poems and songs meant to be funny when I was in second grade. But I didn’t start thinking about how humor “worked” until I found myself under contract to Simon and Schuster to deliver a book of math-and-science jokes. Because my contract required me to deliver a certain number of words by a given date, worrying about how to make those words work better was a distraction from my actual job-at-hand. All my life, I have worked hardest at things I was not required to work at–most especially during those times when I was supposed to be working at something else.
FP: As a younger person, were you one of the ones people looked to “make it funny?”
BD: Yes, I always loved being a funny girl. I re-told or invented jokes, wrote funny lyrics to popular songs, designed funny birthday cards, wrote funny skits that I got all my family to act in–and this is all before I turned 13.
FP: Did you perhaps one day “bust a gut laughing” and decide to be on the look-out for dangerous situations?
BD: I see funny things everywhere in the world around me–just the way someone who loves to draw sees beautiful lines and shapes everywhere in the world. My nerdy interest in humor is thinking of ways to convey the funny thing I saw, in the funniest shape it could have, to somebody else.
FP: Betsy, you’re nerdy. I’m nerdy too. Some would say geek-like. I always thought nerdy girls were hot. Many were also funny.
BD: Thanks–and I always fancied nerdy guys.
FP: So do you think we should just…
BD: Not right now. Halley and I did a chick thing yesterday, going to a matinee of Down With Love. So much fun, and Halley is a wonderful person to sit next to in the darkness…
FP: No doubt!
BD: …laughing in the darkness. I thought nerdy David Hyde Pierce was sooo appealing. Halley writes brilliantly of the joy of Alpha males, and I’ve defined the kind of guys I like as “Alephs.”
FP: “When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people — these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.”
In 1962 when Tom Hayden and friends were crafting the Port Huron Statement (excerpted above), I had just finished my Junior year in high school and was looking forward to a summer job here in Madison at the Legislative Reference Bureau library. Nerdy? Some would say that. I think I also pedaled an ice cream bike that summer. By this time my first real girl friend and I were on again/off again. She was dating an Airman 3rd class from the local airbase – a boy not much older than me, but infinitely more worldly and experienced. It would be a long time before I lost my virginity, and at least four years until I smoked any pot.
Where were you in ’62?
BD: Ah, 1962 was the year I got thrown out of my first prep school, the Mary C. Wheeler School of Providence, RI. I have to say the headmaster was sweet about it. This had something to do with a naughty composition I wrote on the topic “The Pause That Refreshes,” about a guy named Joe who liked to enjoy said pause with his wife Meg. My friends were suitably shocked and amused by this piece, and a girl named Posy liked it so much she decided to turn it in as her own work to an English class. Posy showed her originality by changing the names “Joe” and “Meg” to “Rick” and “Barbara”–the names of her twenty-something English teacher and his fiance. Posy was sent home on the next train, and I followed soon after I confesssed. I was not interested in politics when I was 15, but I was interested in kissing, and I spent a lot of time kissing two very nice boys (one in June, one in August), both of them, as I recall, excellent kissers.
FP: Three years later, in April 1965, we put tens of thousands of people on the street in the first anti-Vietnam War march in Washington. Were you out of high school then? Maybe first year of college? How was this social ferment affecting you?
BD: By April 1965, I was a freshman at Bennington, and still more interested in love than politics. Let me apologize for this by explaining that I have a very beautiful younger sister, and I spent my whole skinny childhood being reassured that I must be “the intelligent one.” So when I got to the age and shape and size where boys noticed me and thought I was pretty cute–I was soooooo delighted. In my spare time, I wrote Zen poetry, drank jasmine tea, and learned how to drive.
FP: Later still, from the summer of ’67 through the end of 1969, SDS matured as an organization, tossed the old Progressive Laborites out, allied themselves with the Black Panther Party, and perhaps for the first time since the Whiskey Rebellion armed revolt becomes a possibility in the United States with the formation of Weatherman. Where was Betsy Devine and what was she doing?
BD: In the summer of 1967, I topped my previous records of bad judgment by marrying a cute giant boy of 25 (five years older than I was) who had sexy motorcycle boots and could really play folk guitar. He and I then moved to London, where he studied at the London School of Economics and met Danny the Red, while I worked for minimum wage in a little deli, a job I really enjoyed. After David got a masters in political sociology, we went to Cornell, where all political hell was about to break loose. It was then I got involved in SDS–I had been opposed to the Vietnam war since ‘late ’65 tho without doing much about it. David was preoccupied by his work, I was on fire with a brave new world that my lefty friends and I were about to create. Finally, during one of many fights, I jumped out of the car at a red light and moved into a hippy crash pad with my pals. I have never regretted that, and I bet David doesn’t regret it either. Later in the spring of ’69,
SDS broke up, my buddies went off to the West Coast to be Weathermen, and I decided to go finish college. I was going to be an obstetrician in Alaska, flying in with my seaplane to deliver babies, or maybe a famous inventor–I wasn’t sure which.
FP: That next summer there were strikes and bombings and the tragedy at Kent State University in Ohio. In San Francisco there street riots when Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky, the Vietnamese leader visited. Did that overt violence have an effect on your political perspective?
BD: Even the noblest cause will attract some people who want to hurt or kill naysayers. The most violent guy I knew in SDS slept with a loaded shotgun so that if the FBI came to get him he could blow some of them away. He had joined us directly from the American Nazis. Frankly, he was a lot more excited about his guns than about any political idea we held in common. I joined SDS and the IWW (“Wobblies”) because they talked convincingly about making people’s lives better. (I loved the Port Huron statement.) When I went back to college, I continued to write letters and march against the war, but I couldn’t see any clear way to create wider social justice and racial harmony.
FP: It took us another three years to see that war ended and Henry Kissinger actually won a Nobel Peace Prize. Do you think the war protests and the movement were effective in bringing the war to an earlier close, or were we deluded when we thought we could make a difference?
BD: I think our protests made a difference by opening more people’s minds to the strange idea that our government might not be telling us the truth.
FP: The sixties were much like this decade, providing a context of alienating political circumstances and an urgency to change things to save the world. How have your political beliefs changed since then?
BD: I graduated from 8th grade in 1960. My parents were warm, idealistic Democrats–and I believed everything they told me because I knew what they said was what they believed. (Example #1, when I asked about 1950s civil rights marches on TV: “Long ago, there were some people who believed colored people weren’t as good as other people–but of course nobody really thinks that now.” Example #2, just before I was sent away to boarding school, 3 months before my 14th birthday: “You’ll hear other girls talking about sex–if they say stuff that’s scary or awful, just tell them your mother says that that is not true.”)
In “the sixties” I was a typical youthful idealist of my own era, believing that truth and justice would soon prevail, bringing peace, love, and brotherhood all around the world.
Now, in 2003, I still long for peace, love, and brotherhood–but I would gladly settle for more justice, tolerance, and an improved environment.