Book review: Inside Jokes – Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, by Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett and Reginald B. Adams, Jr.

This book has the best explanation I’ve seen so far of why we experience humor. The simplistic summary is that it is a reward for detecting certain kinds of false assumptions. And after it initially evolved it has been adapted to additional purposes (signaling one’s wit), and exploited by professional comedians in the way that emotions which reward reproductive functions are exploited by pornography.

Some of the details of which false beliefs qualify as a source of humor and how diagnosing them to be false qualifies as a source of humor seem arbitrary enough that the theory falls well short of the kind of insight that tempts me to say “that’s obvious, why didn’t I think of that?”. And a few details seem suspicious – the claims that people are averse to being tickled and that one sensation tickling creates is that of being attacked don’t seem consistent with my experience.

They provide some clues about the precursors of humor in other species (including laughter, which apparently originated independently from humor as a “false alarm” signal), and give some hints about why the greater complexity of the human mind triggered a more complex version of humor than the poorly understood versions that probably exist in some other species.

The book has some entertaining sections, but the parts that dissect individual jokes are rather tedious. Also, don’t expect this book to be of much help at generating new and better humor – it does a good job of clarifying how to ruin a joke, but it also explains why we should expect creating good jokes to be hard.

Book review: Human Enhancement, edited by Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom.

This book starts out with relatively uninteresting articles and only the last quarter of so of it is worth reading.

Because I agree with most of the arguments for enhancement, I skipped some of the pro-enhancement arguments and tried to read the anti-enhancement arguments carefully. They mostly boil down to the claim that people’s preference for natural things is sufficient to justify broad prohibitions on enhancing human bodies and human nature. That isn’t enough of an argument to deserve as much discussion as it gets.

A few of the concerns discussed by advocates of enhancement are worth more thought. The question of whether unenhanced humans would retain political equality and rights enables us to imagine dystopian results of enhancement. Daniel Walker provides a partly correct analysis of conditions under which enhanced beings ought to paternalistically restrict the choices and political power of the unenhanced. But he’s overly complacent about assuming the paternalists will have the interests of the unenhanced at heart. The biggest problem with paternalism to date is that it’s done by people who are less thoughtful about the interests of the people they’re controlling than they are about finding ways to serve their own self-interest. It is possible that enhanced beings will be perfect altruists, but it is far from being a natural consequence of enhancement.

The final chapter points out the risks of being overconfident of our ability to improve on nature. They describe questions we should ask about why evolution would have produced a result that is different from what we want. One example that they give suggests they remain overconfident – they repeat a standard claim about the human appendix being a result of evolution getting stuck in a local optimum. Recent evidence suggests that the appendix performs a valuable function in recovery from diarrhea (still a major cause of death in places) and harm from appendicitis seems rare outside of industrialized nations (maybe due to differences in dietary fiber?).

The most new and provocative ideas in the book have little to do with the medical enhancements that the title evokes. Robin Hanson’s call for mechanisms to make people more truthful probably won’t gather much support, as people are clever about finding objections to any specific method that would be effective. Still, asking the question the way he does may encourage some people to think more clearly about their goals.

Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg describe an interesting (original?) hypothesis about why placebos (sometimes) work. It involves signaling that there is relatively little need to conserve the body’s resources for fighting future injuries and diseases. Could this understanding lead to insights about how to more directly and reliably trigger this effect? More effective placebos have been proposed as jokes. Why is it so unusual to ask about serious research into this subject?

Book review: How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion by Daniel H. Wilson
This book combines good analyses of recent robotics research with an understanding of movie scenarios about robot intentions (“how could millions of dollars of special effects lead us astray?”) to produce advice of unknown value about how humans might deal with any malicious robots of the next decade or two.
It focuses mainly on what an ordinary individual or small groups can do to save themselves or postpone their demise, and says little about whether a major uprising can be prevented.
The book’s style is somewhat like the Daily Show’s style, mixing a good deal of accurate reporting with occasional bits of obvious satire (“Robots have no emotions. Sensing your fear could make a robot jealous”), but it doesn’t quite attain the Daily Show’s entertainment value.
Its analyses of the weaknesses of current robot sensors and intelligence should make it required reading for any science fiction author or movie producer who wants to appear realistic (I haven’t been paying enough attention to those fields recently to know whether such people still exist). But it needs a bit of common sense to be used properly. It’s all too easy to imagine a gullible movie producer following its advice to have humans build a time machine and escape to the Cretaceous without pondering whether the robots will use similar time machines to follow them.

I’ve been slowly working my way through a book by Richard Zacks called An Underground Education. I’ve found one section that deserves a blog entry of it’s own (I’ll discuss the rest of the book when I’ve finished reading it).
It describes a fairly popular betting-style market that ran from 1771 to 1776 in London about whether a diplomat named Chevalier D’Eon was male or female. D’Eon apparently acted and dressed at times as a man, and at other times as a woman, and refused to help the bettors settle their bets (even when D’Eon was offered a large amount of money to provide evidence of his/her sex). Eventually bettors got tired of waiting for an outcome and resorted to at least one lawsuit. The judge decided that D’Eon was a woman based on testimony from both sides of the lawsuit. Why did the side who had bet D’Eon was a man produce testimony that D’Eon was a woman? It was part of an accusation that the other side traded on what the SEC would call inside information. After D’Eon’s death, mortuary attendants said D’Eon was a man.
Aside from the obvious implications for how idea future style markets need to word claims so as to assure a practical means of observing whether a claim is true or not within a practical time period, this report also says some odd things about gender stereotyping. Lots of people probably think prior generations mostly had Victorian attitudes toward gender confusion, but it seems that D’Eon was sufficiently respectable in 1792 to have a dinner party thrown to honor both Thomas Paine and D’Eon.