Jul 6 2010

Live Blogging ESOF

9:07 am: Peter and I have decided to attend a session called “The Science of Humor.” Moderator announces that he is stunned that anyone has made it to the talk; he attended the media party last night, and is surprised that he himself is here. “I’m stimulating myself right now,” he claims, “So if I’m at all myself, it will be an accomplishment.”

9:11 am: Four minutes into the talk and moderator has already used words “snot” and “crap.” He is now talking about people who laugh so hard they pee (in a context that makes it seem like he is referring to one of his guest speakers). I have finally found a science talk at my level.

9:13 am: The first humor conference was apparently in 1976 and evolved into an organization called the World Humor and Irony Membership, nicknamed “WHIM.” The yearbook was called Whimsy. Oh, what fun they must have had.

9:18 am: American journalists are, it turns out, very different moderators than molecular biologists (though I think this guy may have a Ph.D. in that as well). He keeps interrupting his guest speakers to ask them questions like, “No, wait, but when did you think to yourself, humor: YES.”

9:21 am: Third guest speaker explains an unpublicized aspect of narcolepsy — occasional attacks of what sounds like “cataplexy,” which are moments where you lose control of all muscles in your body (I’m guessing this might have to do with the urination). Apparently these attacks come on when a person experiences a very strong emotion — most importantly, humor. That must suck for narcoleptic stand-ups.

9:24 am: This is a science that uses Gary Larson’s “Far Side” comics as study controls.

9:27 am: Question from moderator: “Are there jokes in Egyptian hieroglyphics?”

“Yes,” responds one researcher. “Surprisingly they’re very much like Dilbert cartoons. A bunch of people arrive at a storage area and they can’t get in because the guard is asleep because he drank too much beer and has passed out. So they complain and bitch because they want to go home, but can’t because the guard is asleep.”

“So, in other words, it’s about as funny as a Dilbert cartoon,” says the moderator.

9:29 am: Question: Are there older jokes than the Egyptian ones?
“Yes, it’s Syrian. It’s a fart joke.”
Really? We haven’t advanced beyond Syrian humor?
“Whenever we have historical records, we have humor, and it’s exactly the same as contemporary humor.”
Maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about having the same level of humor as my seventh graders.

9:32 am: We have (perhaps regrettably) moved on to humor in other species.

9:33 am: Wait, not regrettably. Apparently some bonobos have been known to point at their lab assistants, point at a pile of shit, and then laugh.

9:35 am: We are now speaking of “spindle neurons,” apparently related to humor and found in whales and dolphins and . . . pachyderms. (Like elephants, which apparently can recognize themselves in the mirror — and enjoy finding pools of fermented fruit that they can get drunk off of.)

9:39 am: How do you measure humor? There are measurement forms, questionnaires, humor quizzes. At least fifteen quantitative assessments, none of which sound particularly funny.

9:41 am: Humor is not the same as comedy, asserts one panelist. Humor is an element of daily life; comedy is more professional. Humor is to comedy as sex is to pornography, he says. But what is it? A deliberate incongruity? A violation of expectations?

9:44 am: An actual question from the moderator: Do funnier people get laid more?

9:45 am: No specific studies on that one, but apparently humor is a key characteristic in most personal ads (in addition to being athletic and slender).

9:48 am: What are the panelists working on now?
Speaker #1. Is there necessarily a pause between a set-up and a punchline? No, he says. He thinks it may have come from a single joke: “Take my wife . . . please.” But apparently most people do not pause before their punchlines.

Speaker #2: The “encryption theory” of humor. In order to understand humor you have to have the same background understanding (shared knowledge) as the other person. He is listening to hundreds of hours of conversation and transcribing humorous exchanges. How can such a fun science be so boring to execute?

Speaker #3: Women’s brains respond more, in terms of reward centers, than men’s when presented with something they found funny. Men, on the other hand, were neutral during funny things, and responded with disappointment when presented with something unfunny, even when warned it might not be. Speaker #1: “So does that mean that men don’t follow instructions?”

10:10: Okay, wrapping things up. Questions from the audience: “Tell us the Syrian fart joke.”
Answer: “It’s just that. Somebody farts. Somebody farts in a story.”


Jul 5 2010

Italy, Keeping Score

I have a question: when is a nap not a nap? In other words, if I were to hypothetically have fallen asleep for three hours and forty five minutes this afternoon (give or take), does that still count as a nap? Or is it more a half night’s sleep that happened to take place in the middle of the afternoon?

I suppose the answer to that question will become apparent in about a half hour, when I try to fall asleep again. My prediction right now is that it’s not going to be too hard — this conference is exhausting. Non-stop talks all day + social events with free wine = one very sleepy science journalist.

Today, for example, we attended something called a “Bio-lunch,” a special meal where Italian biologists gave presentations about their work as we ate some sort of related food. For example: tomato and bean salad for a guy who studies legumes. A mound of truffle-coated raw beef (verdict is out) for a woman studying the truffle genome. Veal for a guy studying an extinct type of cow (unclear if the irony was deliberate). It was a great idea and a great experience, but it also took place in an unairconditioned dining room, and our table — at which there was only one other person — came with four bottles of wine.

You do the math. By the end of the meal, the room’s mood had shifted considerably  — I felt bad for the guy who had to talk about fish reproduction during the dessert course — and Peter and I had become fast friends with our table mate, Luigi, who writes for La Stampa and was once declared an honorary citizen of Texas by George W. Bush.

But what seemed like a great idea at lunch was less enjoyable when we decided to take a post-lunch stroll to the Turin Museum of Human Anatomy, a collection of desiccated body parts from the 19th century. (Its weirdest part? The skeleton of its founder, who requested that he be put on display along with his brain, which was preserved by his own methods and is resting at his feet.) The Anatomy Museum happens to be in the same building as the crimonology museum (more preserved brains, death masks of inmates, and the skeleton of its founder), which happens to be in the same building as — naturally — the Turin Museum of Fruit. (Thousands of amazing wax models of apples and pears, located directly across the hall from criminology.) It was about as bizarre a combination as it sounds.

Then it was back to the hotel for a four-hour nap.

Anyway. My impressions of Italy so far are mixed, and I’m realizing

The Anatomy Museum -- pictures were forbidden, and the guard was watching us like a hawk

that, just as travel expands your understanding and acceptances of other cultures and countries, it also can make you really judgmental.  So in that spirit, here are the pros and cons of Italy so far:

Pro: Mozzarella cheese, good wine, balsamic vinegar with the consistency of maple syrup.

Con: Four different registration desks at the conference, staffed by people who send you on endless quests for “colleagues” who supposedly can answer your tough questions (i.e. “Where do the buses for the field trips leave from?”) — but instead just send you to someone else. It’s an endless circle of colleagues, each of whom knows nothing. The German organizers of my fellowship program are getting quite annoyed.

Pro: Unlimited free cappuccinos. Forget water — you can have an espresso drink between every talk if you like. This leaves me stressed out about logistics, and also extremely wired.

Con: Needless rules. Why does the Italian government require an ID number in order for you to get an internet password? Why can I not sit in the back row of the conference room, but can sit in the second-to-last row? Why can I not order food in the lobby, next to the kitchen, but can have it delivered to my room? Why is there a museum guard trailing me so close that he can read the placards over my shoulder? Why must I sign up in person for an event if I already did so online — and how would I have known that if I had not asked you? WHY?

(Another) con: A lack of understanding on American bathing suits. We tried to go to the hotel spa the other day (a definite pro) and the woman at the desk looked absolutely horrified when, in response to her suggestion that we change in our rooms, we announced that we already had our suits on. It was as if we had showed up at the pool in our pajamas.

Con: Gender roles. Why, if I was the person who made the reservation, corresponded from my email address and showed up to get the key, is the room under Peter’s name (a fact I discovered when I tried to sign on to the internet and couldn’t get my last name to work as the log-in)? I’ve never even mentioned anything other than Price — they needed to get that from our passports.

Pro: Did I mention the balsamic vinegar?

You may have noticed that the cons on that list seem to outweigh the pros, and that most of the pros have to do with food. The solution is, I think, obvious: I should eat more. Stay tuned.

(Speaking of which, here is another pro: our favorite Italian commercial. No idea what it’s for.)

Jul 4 2010

Benvenuti in Italia

Adieu, France — Peter and I have arrived in Turin, Italy, where I’ve been lucky enough to get a fellowship to attend the Euroscience Open Forum — basically an all-you-can-eat (and then some) week of science-related talks and events. I’m hoping I can do a liveblogging event, a la New York Times, of one of the lectures — but for the moment I’m writing quickly from the Press Center before meeting up with Peter for a talk about nanofood. Don’t know what that is? Me neither.

Our departure from Paris was none too soon — while most of our time there was great (especially our adventures with Hannah — details to follow) during the last few days it got hot, really hot. Thanks to the unairconditioned state of the apartment we were staying in, I earned a new, unwanted appreciation for my ability to sweat out of pretty much every piece of skin on my body. Who knew one could perspire through the knee?

I kept practicing this skill right up to the moment we got on the train to Turin, a process that involved a lot of running and carrying heavy bags up and down metro stairs. Devoted readers (or at least those who have read the preceding entry) know the process it took to get tickets for the Artesia #9299 to Turin. But once I had them, it never occurred to me that the train ride itself would be anything but pleasant. Imagine my dismay, then, when we found car 8, seats 65 and 66 and discovered that a. they were in the least airconditioned car on the train, b. they were smack in the middle, which meant that we were facing the people across from us, separated by a folding table — giving the impression that we were on a 5.5-hour long forced picnic with strangers — and c. said strangers had such strong body and foot odor that I could actually taste it in my mouth. (Sound gross? It was.)

Luckily our bodies eventually adjusted to the temperature — which, while hot, was nothing on Paris. The same could not be said for the various odors, which lasted — one might even say became stronger — on our way to Turin. But the scenery itself was beautiful, we arrived safe and sound, and we are now ensconced in the world of European science. More to follow.

ps: I am writing this via a browser called “Ice Weasel.” Is this the Italian Fire Fox?