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Against sarcasm

Everyone loves Ted Lasso, both the character and the show, in great part because he manages to be funny without being sarcastic. It reminds me of what made Frasier so good: that the writers never took the easy jokes. Smart humor is hard, smart humor without sarcasm is even harder.1

The past few years have made me sarcarsm-intolerant. I can still appreciate professionally done satire — Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report years comes to mind — but you, my Twitter friend, are no Stephen Colbert. Good satire takes some effort to create, but is easily understood. Casual sarcasm is the opposite: it is easy to say or write what you don’t mean, but recognizing sarcasm requires knowledge of the context, the author’s prior writings, the subject in question, and even then, often, it is missed. Queue the author’s indignation and musings on how the Twitter sheeple can’t recognize a joke, though sometimes the indignation itself can be self-consciously funny.

The exchange above was notable for erecting a barrier between people who some time ago would have considered themselves part of the same ingroup.2 If there is one thing sarcasm does well, it is to erect barriers between smaller and smaller groups until everyone is at a war of wits with everyone else. It turns a tool of communication capable of spreading great knowledge quickly into a French court-style spectacle for the masses, fueled by the algorithm.

Dropping sarcasm would not make the internet excruciatingly boring. Note @10kdiver of the Markov chain thread from the paragraph above, or @wrathofgnon, @Gwern, @craigmod, @BCiechaowski… all brilliant, not an ounce of sarcasm between them (half an ounce from Gwern, perhaps). There is in fact an infinite number of ways to be interesting online without being sarcastic, and sarcasm itself permeates the online life so much that it is, well, boring.

Offline, the distinction blurs between being sarcastic and having plausible deniability. Sarcasm may be the highest form of intellect in teenage years, where plausible deniability helps save face, but before the end of adolescence saving face quickly turns into gaslighting. Small wonder that the most sarcastic character on Friends was also the one to catfish a woman.3 So if there ever was a quick and easy litmus test, it is this: after the horrible year we’ve had, and a decade that was not much better, whom would you rather hang out with and who would you rather be: Ted Lasso or Chandler Bing.


  1. This is also why in the great Seinfeld versus Frasier debate I will always choose Frasier. Don’t @ me. 

  2. Yes, ingroups of days past still had factions and civil wars, but what used to be confined to the university cafeteria or the sparsely attended conference session is now right there for the world to see, and pile onto. Somewhat paradoxically, meatspace barriers are as ephemeral as an academic’s memory; online barriers, while not set in stone, are quite a bit more solid. The algorithm remembers. 

  3. This is also one of many reasons why Friends will never be in contention for the best of anything, except maybe the best show to reveal the 90s to be the backwards decade it truly was. 


What I learned on Twitter, week of 2/15/21


What I learned on Twitter, week of 2/8/21


What I learned on Twitter, week of 2/1/21


What I learned on Twitter, week of 1/25/21


What I learned on Twitter, week of 1/18/21

What a week…


What I learned on Twitter, week of 1/11/21


Things I heard were good but was holding out for reasons unknown then wondered why I haven’t tried them sooner

  • The Americans
  • The Mandalorian
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  • Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels
  • Peter Thiel’s Zero to One
  • Sam Harris’s Waking Up app
  • Steven Wolfram’s Mathematica
  • The following Mac “productivity” apps: Omnifocus, Omnigraffle, DevonThink Pro, Tinderbox
  • Zettelkasten
  • Apple hardware
  • Electric bicycles
  • Birdwatching

Obviously, I recommend all of the above.

See also: Things I used to like but now wonder what in the world I was thinking.


Things I used to like but now wonder what in the world I was thinking

  • Social media
  • Gmail
  • Richard Dawkins and his “New Atheism”
  • Ayn Rand’s two books

There must be more, but I am good at suppressing.

See also: Things I heard were good but was holding out for reasons unknown then wondered why I haven’t tried them sooner.


Some observations on Covid-19 from recent personal experience

  • A few hours before I developed symptoms I had a negative screening nasal swab. By the time I got a positive test three days later the symptoms were well on their way to resolving. Good thing I didn’t believe that first result.
  • What helped my not believing was that I had textbook Covid-19 which was moderate bordering on severe: fever 39.5°C (~103°F), chills, body aches, nasal congestion, rhinorhea, and a dry cough that was mild enough for me not to worry. But thankfully no anosmia.
  • Read the preceding paragraph again. The nasal swab done just before I developed all those symptoms (and arguably while having chills - though I didn’t know they were chills at the time) was negative. Covid-19 testing is no better or worse than any other clinical test we have, which is to say caveat medicus.
  • Considering our family’s practices I was surprised that it managed to get in and suspected it was one of the new strains. Lo and behold not 7 days later the UK strain was found in Maryland. I won’t know the sequence of the one that got me for a few more months, but I’d say it’s likely.
  • Said practices did contribute to containment, as there seemed to be no spread outside of the household (there is a small asterisk there which I will leave for another time).
  • The new strains being so much easier to get makes any delays in administering the vaccine that more deadly. This is hard to overstate: shots in arms now, doesn’t matter how and to whom.
  • Speaking of shots, I did get my first dose a few days before the likely exposure, and plan on getting the second one as scheduled if available.
  • Masks aren’t 100% effective, particularly in areas of high prevalence which is right now most of the world. The new strains shift the equilibrium even more. Holier-that-though memes about things being OK again if only people did what’s good for them (i.e. wore a mask) are misguided at best and quite likely counterproductive.
  • Another misguided effort: a DC health professional telling the sole member of a large family without a fever to use a separate bathroom, wear a mask at all times and open all the (quite tall) windows of their 1200 sq ft 7th floor apartment. Hard to tell if this was more comical or dangerous.
  • DC health professional’s misguided advice #2: to get everyone in the household tested. If mine was positive and four more people also have fevers do we really think they have something else? Why risk the tester’s exposure and waste reagents: count these people as positive and move on.
  • But as things stand right now, if these household members don’t get tested they don’t count as positive. How prevalent is this situation, I wonder? Even with test availability not being a bottleneck I’d multiply the current counts by at least 2, probably 3 to get the real number (and I’m sure there are epidemiologists who have a more scientific explanation for why we should be doing that anyway).
  • Symptoms in children seem to be no different than any other febrile viremia of childhood (and in fact may be slightly better as they didn’t seem to sap any of their energy, for better or worse). Does this make in-person school more or less safe? I can see both sides of the argument but if you thought children as asymptomatic carriers would be a big risk that risk is probably overblown as they do in fact get symptoms — they just won’t telegraph them.
  • And if you are worried about long-term effects of Covid-19 in children, well, sure, but how is that different from long-term effects of any febrile viremia of childhood? I’m sure our parenting style will ruin their prospects enough that Covid-19 will be just a drop in the bucket.
  • I have been getting lists of home remedies from people who should know better. This includes aspirin (as an anti-platelet agent, not an antipyretic), azithromycin (still!) zinc, turmeric, propolis. What I took: a little bit of APAP and a lot of H2O.
  • I have a new appreciation for the gig workers, who are the unsung heroes of the pandemic. Tip your Dasher.
  • 2021 is certainly off to an interesting start.

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