Archive for 'Arts and Science'

Umbrellas blowing inside out – why’s it funny?

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

What’s funny about watching someone struggle with an unruly umbrella? Few, if any, have come up with a better explanation than W H Auden who took a stab at it in 1952, and came up with two reasons :

“a) An umbrella is a mechanism designed by man to function in a particular manner, and its existence and effectiveness as a protection depend upon man’s understanding of physical laws. An umbrella turning inside out is funnier than a hat blowing off because an umbrella is made to be opened, to change its shape when its owner wills. It now continues to change its shape, in obedience to the same laws, but against his will.

b) The activating agent, the wind, is invisible, so the cause of the umbrella turning inside out appears to lie in the umbrella itself. It is not particularly funny if a tile falls and makes a hole in the umbrella, because the cause is visibly natural.”

See: ‘Notes on the Comic’, Thought: Fordham University Quarterly, Volume 27, Issue 1, Spring 1952. Also re-published in ‘The Dyer’s Hand : and other essays’, 1962

BONUS assignment [optional] Have you got a better explanation?

NEW SERIES OF EVENTS: Improbable Research Table Talks

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

This month, we’ll begin doing a new kind of Improbable Research event: Improbable Research Table Talks. The first event will happen on Monday morning, July 16.

At each Improbable Research Table Talk, Marc Abrahams (editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, and founder of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony) will chat with you about one or another research study that makes people laugh, then think. Some of these studies have won Ig Nobel Prizes; others we have explored in the magazine, in the podcast, etc.

These chats will be cozy, informal, and brief, around a table. Sometimes Marc will bring along a professor, physician, engineer, or other famous or infamous researcher.

Please join us!

The first Improbable Table Talk

The first talk will be Monday, July 16, 2018, at 10 am, at Toscanini’s Ice Cream, 159 First St., Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. It will include special guest researcher Gus Rancatore, proprietor of Toscanini’s. Bring friends and colleagues, if you like. The event is free.

Future Improbable Table Talks

We will announce many of these talks on the Improbable events schedule.

If you are in the Boston area (or not far beyond it), and would like to gather a few friends and host an Improbable Research Table Talk at your favorite coffee shop, office, lab, library, school, or other cozy place, please get in touch with us.

Professor Kosinski, Generator of Improbable Research

Saturday, July 7th, 2018

The Guardian profiles Michael Kosinski, a Stanford University assistant professor of organizational behavior. Professor Kosinski is a prolific generator of improbable research:

Artificial intelligence (AI)—
‘I was shocked it was so easy’: ​meet the professor who says facial recognition ​​can tell if you’re gay

… Weeks after his trip to Moscow, Kosinski published a controversial paper in which he showed how face-analysing algorithms could distinguish between photographs of gay and straight people. As well as sexuality, he believes this technology could be used to detect emotions, IQ and even a predisposition to commit certain crimes. Kosinski has also used algorithms to distinguish between the faces of Republicans and Democrats, in an unpublished experiment he says was successful – although he admits the results can change “depending on whether I include beards or not”.

How did this 36-year-old academic, who has yet to write a book, attract the attention of the Russian cabinet? …

Here’s video of a TV interview with Professor Kosinski:

Professor D’Arcy on like a contemporary vernacular

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

“The selective attention paid to the language of adolescents has led to the enduring belief that young people are ruining the language and that, as a consequence, the language is degenerating. One feature of contemporary vernaculars that is often held up as exemplification of these ideological principles is like, the ‘much-deplored interjection… that peppers the talk of so many of the unpliant young these days’ (Wilson 1987, 92). There is, in fact, an intricate lore surrounding like. It includes the idea that like is meaningless, that women say it more than men do, and that it is an Americanism, introduced by the Valley Girls.”

So writes professor Alexandra D’Arcy (Director of the Sociolinguistics Research Lab, Department of Linguistics, and Chair, Human Research Ethics Board, Office of Research Services, University of Victoria, Australia) in LIKE AND LANGUAGE IDEOLOGY: DISENTANGLING FACT FROM FICTION American Speech, (2007) 82 (4): 386-419.

Continuing the considerations, Professor D’Arcy has a new book devoted to the subject of ‘Like’ entitled :  Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context : Eight hundred years of LIKE (John Benjamins Publishing, $143, hardback and e-book)

Flow, metaphor, flow: Constructal Law

Wednesday, July 4th, 2018

Some things can remind you about almost everything. (Jane Siberry demonstrated this with her song “Everything reminds me of my dog.”) Some ideas can explain specific physical patterns—patterns you can see around you if you start looking for them, patterns you can try to measure and ruthlessly compare with each other. And some of those ideas also can be metaphors that explain, in more general, more vague ways, all sorts of things about how people behave.

CONSTRUCTAL LAW is one of the theories that can be applied to all sorts of things. The theory suggests (or insists) that almost everything evolves over a long period of time shaped by the flow of this and that. Why does the person who gave name to Constructal Law call it a “law,” rather than just calling it a “theory”? Because, as he sees it, the idea truly applies, always, to the things to which it applies. (As a metaphor, it can be applied, in truly clever ways, to almost everything.)

Quartz magazine has a couple of essays about constructal law: “Physics can explain human innovation and enlightenment” and “Everything created is predicted by nature: A new video explains the physics of flow.” Here’s that video about Constructal Law and about Adrian Bejan, the person who thought it up.

And here’s a video of Jane Siberry’s dogged dog-idea idea:

(Thanks to Jennifer Ouellette for bringing this to our attention.)