Here, check out this joke:
Now try this video:
Night and day, right? In one, your spirit ascends right at the end. In the other, it descends, so to speak. Gross vs. sweet, jesting vs. genuine, resigned vs. hopeful. Both are well-done. But for me, one is a major letdown. I mean it’s a splat. There’s too much drag. It’s all gravity and no levity. It makes me think of the time I was raped at the circus. Yeah, you got it. I don’t like the second one.
The joke is from the TV show Robot Chicken. The story is from StoryCorps. They were produced by different groups with different goals. The contrast is so stark you might not even think they’re comparable. I think they are, though, and further I think the obvious dissimilarities do not explain why I like the one I do.
Okay, here are two more:
A similar joke, a similar story, but my preferences are reversed.
The clown and Pinocchio jokes are similarly irreverent. They both work by implication; they even share an implication of death. But I don’t really like the Pinocchio joke. I think’s it’s creative, but the image of Pinocchio telling lies to feed a fire is such a good setup that the punch line is disappointing. The clown joke is perfect. It invokes just the right level of interpretation and imagination. Rich, simple, flawless.
“The Human Voice” and “Danny and Annie” are stories stylistically identical. They’re similarly sentimental. They both hinge on plainspoken raconteur. But “The Human Voice” doesn’t work for me. For one thing, I rode a lot of BART last year, where they use human voices, and I ride the LA Metro now, where they use computer voices. The computer voices are unobtrusive and much easier to understand. Besides, the sentiment feels half hackneyed, half reactionary. It’s hard to fill in the blank in “What has happened to _________ these days” without me immediately dismissing you as a codger. (If you want to hold my attention, you could fill that blank with Heidi Klum’s boobs. Not the words. The actual boobs.) “Danny and Annie” has an endearing frankness. You can tell when someone is forcing it and when someone is being honest. This story is honest and sadly heartwarming.
So sometimes things click with me and sometimes they don’t. No surprise there. I’m not writing because I want to tell you that some things are good and some things are bad. I’m writing to tell you that I lied.
I didn’t lie about which ones I liked. I lied about my reasons. What really happened when I watched these four videos is I immediately liked two and disliked two. Then, my mind made up, I started searching for justification.
It could have gone the other way. I could have told you that the clown joke is sophomoric, that “The Human Voice” is touching, that “Pinocchio” is gem of creative lateral thinking, and that “Dannie and Annie” is maudlin. That’s what I think I would have done, if the little “Like” switch in my brain had been thrown the opposite way as I watched each video.
Though difficult to articulate and impossible to prove, this phenomenon feels pervasive in my life. I like and dislike books, restaurants, songs, weather conditions, dogs, hairdos, words, driving maneuvers, and my bowel movements according to wild, hodgepodge, seemingly-arbitrary rules, and frequently for reasons I don’t understand.
There are patterns, but as the subject matter becomes more complex I have to do a lot more squinting and turning my head sideways to make them out. I have pretty simple criteria for what makes a good hotel room, and I think that criteria are logical and justified (clean, inexpensive, comfortable). What makes a good peanut butter is similarly pretty clear in my mind, but I can’t quite say why I like crunchy and nonsugared.
The reasons why I have a crush on a girl or find a joke funny, though, are almost completely opaque, even though my opinions are strong and I’m reticent even to consider their fallibility.
I like playing simple, dumb games. If you’ve known me a while you’re likely to have been the victim of one, especially if I’ve been drinking.
One that I’ve played with a few people involves the use of my computer screensaver, Electric Sheep. Electric Sheep looks like this:
The patterns, or sheep, last a few seconds. The twist is that if you see a sheep you like, you can vote it up, and if you dislike one, you can vote it down. The votes of all users of the program are sent back to a server. If a sheep gets lots of upvotes, a new, similar sheep will be generated. If a sheep gets downvoted, it’s killed off. So the sheep theoretically evolve to become more interesting.
The game is that both players watch the sheep come on screen. Player A decides whether he likes the sheep or not. Then player B ignores her own opinion, and guesses whether player A will like the sheep. Then you compare answers. It’s very simple. But I’ve found that we’re bad at it. I’ve never gotten a very high accuracy when guessing, and never been guessed well, either.
This is something I like about the sheep game. It’s openly arbitrary. No one has ever tried to justify their preferences to me or explained a careful model they created for predicting mine. Yes, I like or dislike a given sheep. By why would I go ranting on about it? They’re not important issues. They’re just beautiful.