May 072017

Today, the first Sunday in May, is World Laughter Day. The first celebration was actually on January 10, 1998, in Mumbai, and was arranged by Dr. Madan Kataria, founder of the worldwide Laughter Yoga movement. Now there are special World Laughter Day events in at least 105 countries worldwide. Kataria, a family doctor in India, was inspired to start the Laughter Yoga movement in part by the facial feedback hypothesis, which postulates that a person’s facial expressions can have an effect on their emotions. There is also some scientific evidence that laughter is medically helpful. Kataria’s speculation is that it does not matter whether laughter is forced or natural to have a beneficial effect. I can understand the hypothesis although I have no evidence to support it other than anecdotal. It is, of course, fundamental to yoga that body posture influences mental state. I think that this is unquestionably true, but whether it applies to deliberate laughter is not clear to me. However, I see no reason why we can’t deliberately provoke actual laughter. If I want to laugh there is a video of a cat failing to jump on some shelves that cracks me up — every single time. [It has since been removed from YouTube unfortunately but you can find part of it at .48 here]

Why it used to make me laugh so reliably is not clear, and brings up the whole question of the nature of humor which has been studied endlessly and with little profit. Incongruity is one facet of humor, as in this case. The cat so clearly wants to jump up on the shelf, and fails. But . . . it does not jump and miss; its “jump” is not even worthy of the name. It just falls off the table. It is the combination of obvious desire and epic failure that appeals to me; that, and the fact that I know cats and their desires very well.

As a graduate student I wrote a paper on incongruity in comic strips for my sociolinguistics class. My (lame) hypothesis involved showing that sometimes cartoonists tried to be funny by making their characters say things that were grossly out of characters, such as, children being wise well beyond their years, or, conversely, adults talking like children. The latter is the stock in trade of the immensely popular television series The Big Bang Theory, which I detest precisely for that reason. The premise that highly intelligent men typically act like children in their social lives annoys me beyond words. First, the premise is demonstrably false, and, second, seeing grown men acting like boys does not amuse me.

Although some animals, especially non-human primates, exhibit physical behaviors that look like laughter, I find it highly unlikely that animals are capable of actual laughter. Chimpanzees and orangutans sometimes display laughter-like behavior when they are enjoying themselves, but human laughter extends well beyond simple enjoyment. It is much more complex. Much of human laughter comes from language, and this is outside of non-human capability.

There is no question that laughter can be infectious. This classic English music hall song, The Laughing Policeman, relies on infection for success (or failure):

I’ve always enjoyed provoking laughter from my students when I teach. It’s not a deliberate strategy; I can’t help myself. I see the funny side of things. In fact I see the funny side of just about everything when I am with other people. But there’s the thing. For me laughter is sociable. If I watch a movie by myself that amuses me, I don’t laugh, but if I am with other people, I do. Back in my college days no one had a television, but we had a television room and we would pack it on certain occasions, such as when Monty Python came on. The place would be in hysterics from start to finish, and I would laugh along with the others.

This point reminds me that laughter is intensely culturally specific. I had many colleagues in the US who did not find Monty Python funny in the slightest. On the other side of the coin, when I was in China I could not for the life of me figure out what Chinese jokes were all about, and they were perplexed at my humor. There was also the complication that Chinese university students generally think it is impolite to laugh out loud in class.

I had two separate ideas for recipes today. The first was to talk about “joke” dishes, that is, dishes that look like one thing but are actually another. Here, for example, is a “grilled cheese” sandwich that is actually toasted pound cake slices with a yellow icing for filling:

However, I’ve covered this idea before several times. So, instead I want to look at amusing recipes. I found this online (click to enlarge).

It’s a recipe generated by a computer program trying to emulate the activity of neural networks – that is, getting a computer learn how to think the way humans think. They were produced  by Janelle Shane using char-rnn, an open-source program on GitHub that she (and others) can customize to build their own neural networks. She gave it a cookbook to analyze and then asked it to produce new recipes. Granting computers human intelligence has a long way to go. I think we’re safe from a robot takeover for a while. Or . . . maybe they are already ingenious enough to know how to chop beer. Frightening.

Here’s another recipe that will keep you guessing:

Pears Or To Garnestmeam


¼ lb bones or fresh bread; optional
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon vinegar
¼ teaspoon lime juice
2  eggs

Brown salmon in oil. Add creamed meat and another deep mixture.

Discard filets. Discard head and turn into a nonstick spice. Pour 4 eggs onto clean a thin fat to sink halves.

Brush each with roast and refrigerate.  Lay tart in deep baking dish in chipec sweet body; cut oof with crosswise and onions.  Remove peas and place in a 4-dgg serving. Cover lightly with plastic wrap.  Chill in refrigerator until casseroles are tender and ridges done.  Serve immediately in sugar may be added 2 handles overginger or with boiling water until very cracker pudding is hot.

Yield: 4 servings

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