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Archive for November, 2011

Wandering, as I am wont to do, along the littered, soft gravel shoulders of the information superhighway, I stumbled across an interesting article last week in the online edition of The Boston Globe. The article’s title, in part, reads…

Why Our Brains Make Us Laugh.

My first thought was, “Why do we need or even want to know why the brain makes us laugh?” Let’s face it. Nothing ruins a joke more than trying to explain it.

(Renaissance Jocularity)

The Boston Globe article states…

He who laughs last usually has to have the joke explained. But then why bother? After all, nothing kills humor faster than analysis… It’s just a joke: Don’t overthink it. But what if humor (or mirth, in research speak) is intimately linked to thinking? What if we’d have trouble thinking without it? That’s the argument of “Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind” (MIT Press, 2011).

As someone (supposedly Johnny Carson) once put it, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You can open it up, examine it and figure out exactly how it works… but the frog rarely survives the process.” [1]

(Is this some kind of joke??)

Hard as it might be to believe by reading my present material, in my early years I took comedy quite seriously. Seriously enough, in fact, to read Sigmund Freud’s publication on the topic, “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.” [2] So naturally, when I tripped over this article, I was intrigued by the idea of a study on how the mind processes humour.

The authors of “Inside Jokes” (you have to admit, it is kind of a cute title), begin from the idea that our brains try to make sense of our daily lives via a never-ending series of assumptions, based on sparse, incomplete information. All these best guesses simplify our world, give us critical insights into the minds of others, and streamline our decisions.

But mistakes are inevitable, and even a small faulty assumption can open the door to bigger and costlier mistakes. It is crucial, therefore, for the brain to constantly undertake a relentless ‘seek and destroy’ mission on as many of these self-induced errors as possible.

(aka Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten)

And it is at this point that humour comes in. Mirth… that little pulse of reward the brain gives itself for seeking out and correcting our mistaken assumptions. A sense of humor is the lure that keeps our brains alert for the gaps between our quick-fire assumptions and reality. As “Inside Jokes” argues, much of what we consider comedy takes advantage of this cognitive reflex, much as McDonald’s taps our evolved taste for high-energy food.

The brain is a complicated machine. Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Clement Dennett once described human brains as “Chevy engines running Maserati software.”

(Brainwork, like the comedy business, is not funny)

Humans think prodigiously. In every situation, the human brain needs to constantly anticipate the future by making assumptions about the world that unfold at breakneck speed. This often results in errors. Finding and disabling these errors is a critical task. But it’s a resource-hungry job that has to compete with everything else our brains are doing. It’s very hard. And taxing. And not a lot of fun, really. So what’s in it for the brain? What’s the payoff for all the effort put into finding and correcting its own mistakes.

Well, basically, the brain has to bribe itself to do this important work. And how does it bribe itself? It bribes itself… by making the discovery of its own mistakes enjoyable. It makes it ‘funny.’

The pleasure of humor, the emotion of mirth, is the brain’s reward for discovering its mistaken inferences!

(Brilliant!)

But if a sense of humor is part of our basic, human thinking machinery, then why can’t we agree about what’s funny?

As co-author Hurley puts it, “What’s universal about humor is the process, not the content. Everybody faces every situation with different beliefs, knowledge, and understandings about the world. And different understandings lead to different assumptions and therefore different false assumptions.”

A sense of humour is more than just a valuable asset for a thinking being. It actually helps reduce the mistakes one makes and acts upon.

(These girls are improving the way their minds work!)

Well, there you have it, boys and girls… The ability to detect humor actually improves one’s chances at getting by in this world.

Who’d have thunk it?

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[1] I’ve since discovered the quote. “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”  E.B. White.

[2] Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten, published in 1905. Riveting stuff. No, really. It is. You should read it, if you are truly interested in humour and how the mind processes it.

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Hello, everyone…

I am presently in Toronto, taking the weekend off and staying with friends.

There will be no article today (November 25) or this coming Monday (November 28) but I will be back at it, hammer and tong, right after that.

Have a holy and spirit-filled Shabbes and a wonderful sushirrific weekend!

The Kosher Samurai

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Just when you thought the world of entomology couldn’t possibly get any weirder, we bring you…

~ (drumroll, please) ~

The Fairy Wasp!

(When I say these things are small… I’m here to tell you, I mean small!)

Fairy wasps are some of the tiniest little critters in the world. The entire bug is about the size of your average single-celled organism.

How can this even be possible, considering that the individual cells that make up the fairy wasp have to be even more teensy-weensier than an amoeba? Well, it turns out that in order to scale things down this far, the fairy wasp had to sacrifice something and that something was much of its nervous system.

As the folks over at io9.com put it in a recent article, “The fairy wasp, otherwise known as the fairyfly, is a parasitic insect that can measure as little as 200 micrometers long, making it roughly the size of unicellular organisms like amoebas or paramecia. Of course, this insect isn’t a one-celled organism, which means its thousands of individual cells have to be shrunk down to unbelievably small sizes.

Size, or rather the lack thereof, definitely has its advantages. For one thing, when you’re that small you’re basically off the menu for most predators. Also, being almost microscopic means you can invade other insects’ eggs undetected.

But there’s a pretty hefty trade-off for the creatures’ biology, especially considering that as much as 95% of neurons in adult fairy wasps don’t have a nucleus.

(The fairy wasp – an ‘up close and personal’ artist’s rendering)

Speaking of which… that’s pretty surprising in and of itself, especially considering a nucleus is generally considered a pretty crucial part of a cell, particularly since it contains the cell’s genetic material. And while baby fairy wasps do feature a full set of nuclei in their neurons, they lose them as they grow older.

The io9.com article goes on to state, “This sacrifice is apparently what allows fairy wasps to remain so ridiculously tiny, and losing so many seemingly crucial nuclei doesn’t actually matter all that much, considering fairy wasps are still able to do all their complicated behaviors, like flying around and invading other eggs. It almost makes you wonder why us bigger species still bother with all these cellular extravagances… you know, like fully functioning neurons.”

Well, call me a hidebound traditionalist, but I suspect most of us prefer our neuron nuclei right where we’ve always kept them.

But in case you ever get the urge to get small… and I mean really small… start thinking in terms of dumping the excess nuclei in your neurons!

Until then, boys and girls, geeks and nerdlings, appreciate the glorious wonder of the world around you!

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Back home after spending five fun-filled days in Toronto.

Attended the semi-annual plenary session of the County & District Law Presidents Association (CDLPA). Interesting and informative. I also got to reconnect with colleagues from across the province. Especially fun were the representatives from my neck o’ the woods, specifically Hamilton, Haldimand, Norfolk and Welland counties.

In addition to the regular CDLPA work over three days, I did manage to get some free time, during which my dearly beloved friend SG and I strolled around the University of Toronto campus [1], taking advantage of the lovely late fall weather.

It was particularly enjoyable for me as I was able to share with her certain spots on campus that had special meaning for me over the years. Those locations were shown in their best light considering that even in the middle of November, the autumn leaves were still falling. Just perfect.

After the conference, I headed north and spent the weekend in The Heart of the Old World [2], spending Shabbes (the Jewish Sabbath) with friends. SG and I had Friday night dinner at our Rabbi’s house and Shabbes lunch the next day at the home our dear friends.

I got to spend Sunday afternoon and evening with my daughter, Exhibit One, who was not feeling well. SG and I sprang into action, cooking chicken soup (aka Jewish penicillin) and generally pampering the poor sick darling. Dropped my daughter off at her apartment in Toronto and came back last night quickly and easily without any traffic jams or unnecessary delays.

All in all, a wonderful time professionally, romantically, emotionally and spiritually.

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[1] I’ve written about this particular part of the downtown campus of the University of Toronto in a previous blog article, Premature Waking: In My Solitude.

[2] I’ve also written about this particular part of Jewish Toronto in a previous blog article, The Heart of the Old World: My Toronto Jewish Neighbourhood.

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For those who have not yet had the pleasure, William Hamilton is a brilliant cartoonist. His works are most often found in The New Yorker magazine. He is also a lawyer and a playwright.  Few people capture the privileged preppy world as well as he.

(Post ‘Official Preppy Handbook’?… or maybe some downward social mobility?)

William Hamilton [1], in a very real way, got me through law school and my bar exams in terms of social interaction. He remains to this day my steadfast companion when I attend virtually any (non-Jewish) social functions, especially of a professional nature.

(The whole ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ aspect is an ongoing theme)

Hamilton’s cartoons shed light on what is, to most of us, a very closed segment of society. It is a world populated by preppies, high-society types, Park Avenue wives and daughters, corporate big wigs, business executives, high-end lawyers, and members of exclusive yacht clubs and country clubs.

(It’s when you overhear people actually talking like this that you ‘get’ Hamilton)

I was introduced to Hamilton the way most of his admirers were… through his New Yorker cartoons. I was still working in the theatre in those days, so many of the nuances of his humour went over my head. I experienced a similar situation later on when I began to follow Scott Adams’s Dilbert cartoons. It was only when I worked in a government agency where the office was set up in a standard ‘cube farm’ plan (i.e. many cubicles set up throughout the office space in a manner remeniscent of a petting zoo) that I truly ‘got’ his humour.

(Always a bit awkward in certain situations, I particularly enjoy the party cartoons)

Similarly, while I enjoyed Hamilton’s characters and situations  and admired his wit and gift for language, it wasn’t until I was put into a position where I had regular contact with a lot of preppies that I fully appreciated his work.

Other settings for Hamilton’s works include gentlemen’s clubs, office board rooms, cocktail parties, the insides of chauffeured limosines… anywhere where his people can let their sparkling dialogue glitter all the more.

(I often say this in court, regarding sentencing someone to ‘community service’)

Over the years, many Hamiltonianisms have crept into my conversation. I can’t help it. Sometimes I am in one situation or another, I open my mouth and out comes one of Hamilton’s snippets of dialogue line right out of the pages of The New Yorker magazine.

Here is a recent example…

I didn’t plan it. It just slipped out. It was tucked away in some ivy league corner of my brain and, at the right moment, sallied forth and presented itself. And, all credit to Mr. Hamilton, it got a positive response from those within earshot.

Here’s another one…

(Of course, the listener has to be old enough to get the reference)

Many of Hamilton’s best pieces revolve around introductions at parties, functions and get-togethers.

For those who’ve found Hamilton’s cartoons amusing, I highly recommend going over to The New Yorker magazine’s The Cartoon Bank and enjoying as much as you can stand.

Until then, I will leave you with some of my favourite Hamilton quips…

Of course you’re going to be depressed if you keep comparing yourself with successful people.

Old is when your daughter announces she’s seeing a younger man.

Someday, you may thank me for breaking what was becoming, in this family, a vicious cycle of inheritance.

You know, when I get over my thing for bad boys, Chip, you’re going to be one of the first to know.

I’ll see if he’s emotionally available.

She’s a Rolex. He’s a Timex.

Oh, God. Here comes the global-village idiot.

Boys, boys. You’re getting loud and no one gives a damn how big your salaries used to be.

I tried a slice of pizza yesterday, and frankly I don’t get it.

Frankly, what’s killing me about this marriage is realizing how entirely preventable it was.

Thank you, Mr. Hamilton, for making my life a better, wittier place.

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[1] Along with Lisa Birnbach, author of The Official Preppy Handbook and True Prep, and English writer P.G. Wodehouse, author of the Jeeves & Wooster novels and many other humourous books. After my call to the bar, screenwriter and director Whit Stilman rounded out my ‘social advisory committee.’ Without them, I would be lost.

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As there was no court on Remembrance Day and as I’d already done all my errands and most of my goofing off earlier, I decided to go for a pleasure drive on The Information Super-Highway.

As is so often the case, one of my pit-stops on my Info-Web-Roadtrip was… ScienceDaily.com.

The science geeks and nerds there once again failed to disappoint!

(Catch a wave and your sittin’ on top of the world)

The title hit me immediately. How could I not read an article called Weird World of Water Gets a Little Weirder?

Water sure is different. For one thing, water can exist in all three states of matter (solid, liquid, gas) at the same time. And the forces at its surface enable insects to walk on water and water to rise up from the roots into the leaves of trees and other plants.

Rather than wade slowly into the piece, I dove right in, plunging headlong into the article. (OK… No more cheesy water metaphors. I promise)

(Ploop!)

The article begins, “Strange, stranger, strangest! To the weird nature of one of the simplest chemical compounds – the stuff so familiar that even non-scientists know its chemical formula – add another odd twist. Scientists are reporting that good old H2O, when chilled below the freezing point, can shift into a new type of liquid.” [1]

That’s right, boys and girls… liquid water, when chilled, becomes even more liquider (liquidish? liquidy?). It turns from a liquid but then into another kind of liquid. So instead of going from a gas (steam) to a liquid (water) to a solid (ice), the transition is more like gas, liquid, another kind of liquid, then ice. Or not.

OK, it’s time to bring in the experts because I’m messing this all up.

(Splash!)

Chemical physics research scientists Pradeep Kumar and H. Eugene Stanley (aka Stanley & Kumar), using computer simulations, found that when they chilled liquid water in said simulations, its propensity to conduct heat decreases. No surprises there. But, and here’s the really cool (no pun intended) sciency part, when they lowered the temperature to about 54 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, the liquid water started to conduct heat even better. At that temperature, the nature of liquid water undergoes sharp but continuous structural changes whereas the local structure of liquid becomes extremely ordered – very much like ice. These structural changes in liquid water lead to increase of heat conduction at lower temperatures.

(You just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?)

In other words, the experiments suggest that at very low temperatures, water changes from one kind of liquid into an entirely different form of liquid. The evidence to support that theory is the ability of the ‘second liquid water’ to conduct heat more easily as a result of its new ordered structure. In fact, the conductivity of the super-cooled water is equal to the conductivity at the highest heat. [2]

The researchers say that this surprising result supports the idea that water has a liquid-to-liquid phase transition.

The practical application of this discovery is, at this time, unclear. [3]

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[1] The report entitled ‘Thermal Conductivity Minimum: A New Water Anomaly‘ is published in the ACS (American Chemistry Society) Publication Journal of  Physical Chemistry B.

Pradeep Kumar, Center for Studies in Physics and Biology, Rockefeller University, New York, New York.
H. Eugene Stanley, Center for Polymer Studies and Department of Physics, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts.

[2] For you chemistry and physics wonks out there, here is the abstract:

 

“We investigate the thermal conductivity of liquid water using computer simulations of the TIP5P model of water. Our simulations show that, in addition to the maximum at high temperatures at constant pressure that it exhibits in experiments, the thermal conductivity also displays a minimum at low temperatures. We find that the temperature of minimum thermal conductivity in supercooled liquid water coincides with the temperature of maximum specific heat. We discuss our results in the context of structural changes in liquid water at low temperatures.”

[3] In other words, I’m having a hard time trying to figure out the practical applications mainly because I know nothing about physics or chemistry. But I’m pretty good at finding photos of owls being shpritzed with water.

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British campaign furniture!

(British Campaign Furniture)

During the Georgian and Victorian periods (1714-1901), campaign furniture allowed military officers and gentlemen in the field to enjoy a similar standard of living as at home in Britain. They invested large amounts of money to enjoy a high degree of comfort, and this was enhanced by furniture made to quickly fold or pack down for ease of transport. Specially designed pieces of campaign, or knockdown, furniture included, chests, writing desks, bookcases, games tables, chairs, beds, sofa-beds, washstands, and, in some cases, bidets or toilets.

(Brass reinforced corners to protect from being banged around during transit)

Travel in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries was slow and rugged, and campaign furniture was designed specifically to be folded and packed into manageable loads that could be quickly and easily stowed in the close quarters of a ship or for being carried by porters and animals on overland trips in foreign lands.

(Fold down for ease in transport – note how handles fold flush with the sides)

My first introduction to this marvelous style was when I was strolling through The Bombay Company many years ago. During those days, they had a series of coffee tables, secretariats, side tables and various other products made in the British campaign style. I remember being taken with the look almost immediately. The clean lines, the natural wood, the brass fittings… all spoke to me of a time when the practicalities of life in the field did not mean giving up the niceties of life! In fact, the harder the cross-country ordeal, the more of a need to be reminded of England and what exactly one was fighting for out in the wilds. It is precisely when one is put in primitive conditions that one should cling all the more strongly to one’s civilized manner and style of life.

Campaign furniture, for me, evokes a by-gone era when the British Empire was in its ascendency… when Britannia Ruled the Waves and the Raj was in full swing. The romantic image (as opposed to the harsh reality) is what appeals to me.

(All the luxuries of home!)

Sadly, when I was finally in a position to be able to purchase some decent (reproduction) furniture, the Bombay Company no longer carried items in the British Campaign style. Alas.

(Writing desk, complete with book compartments, papers, pens, inkwells, etc.)

One day, I will have a little room or area of my apartment or house which I will furnish and set out in the British Campaign motif. It is, to my mind, a very masculine style… perfect for a ‘man cave’ or even a ‘man corner.’

I can hardly wait!

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