Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Funniest or Stupidist Joke Ever

I was reading a humor book with all kinds of jokes when one hit my funny bone:

A man goes to a costume party with a woman draped over his shoulders and says he’s come as a tortoise. “Who’s that on your back?” asks the host. “That?” he says, “That’s Susan.”

I visualized the situation and the dialog and laughed so hard I had tears in my eyes. The absurdity of it just blew me away. Even now I am chuckling as I read it again.

So I read the joke to my wife. “That’s more stupid than funny,” she said without smiling. What? How could she not appreciate the surreal insanity of the joke?

I read the joke again and realized I had misunderstood it. The last sentence of the joke actually reads, “That?” he says, “That’s Michelle.”

It always did say Michelle, and that’s what I read the first time, but I did not connect the name to a terrible acoustic pun, “That’s my shell.” In my mind, “Michelle” could have been “Susan” and the joke would have been just as hilarious and that’s how I read it. My wife was right, the joke, as intended, was stupid, not the least bit funny. She had ruined it for me!

But if I ignored the acoustic pun and read the joke again as I had originally, it again became so funny I could not stop laughing for several minutes.

What was going on here? If the last line had been:

“That’s my dog.” Not funny.
“That’s just some woman.” Not funny.
“I don’t know.” Slightly funny.
“That’s my wife.” Slightly funny.
“That’s a corpse.” Not funny.
“That’s a Martian.” Not funny.
“That’s my collar.” Not funny.

What is it about “That’s Michelle/Susan” that makes the joke so funny the way I read it?

I was set up for a tortoise joke, and in the special syntax of jokes, you expect the punch line to involve some distinctive feature of tortoises, such as the fact that they move very slowly, or are hemispherical in shape.


That the man had a woman draped over his shoulders is already slightly funny. To say he came as a tortoise is also slightly funny, but the two ideas don’t add up to anything. If the joke had ended there, it would be such a total nonsequitur that I might have thought it was a misprint.

But when the host inquires about the woman on his back, I am led to imagine that there is a mystery to be solved about the costume. The host is thinking, “Okay, tortoise, if you say so, but what part is played by that woman on your back?”

The man answers with a surprised question, “That?”

That’s a nice bit of joke-writing there, because why would he be surprised by the question? If the woman really is part of the tortoise costume, he should be eager to explain the connection, but instead, he acts as if he had forgotten he had a woman on his back. So as the joke reader, I am thinking, well, maybe there is some other explanation here. I have been misdirected.

But the punch line, “That’s Michelle,” implies that she is always there. “Oh her, that’s just Michelle. Don’t pay any attention to her.”

It’s as if the guy is completely accustomed to having Michelle draped over his shoulders. I imagine Michelle being rather slim and drape-able, dressed in a tight, shiny party dress, lying limply over his shoulders with her long hair, arms, and legs dangling toward the floor.

But given the setup about a costume party and him presenting himself as a tortoise, with the forgotten Michelle on his back, the punch line is hilarious because of the juxtaposition of the two speakers’ assumptions.

The host is inquiring about the costume, but the guy answers as if he heard the question as an inquiry about the girl, which he answers matter-of-factly, as if it were a reasonable answer to a simple question.

It is that sudden shift in context that made me laugh. Even after analyzing this to death, I am still chuckling now.

Here’s the same joke in a different form:

A man walks into a bar with a beautiful multicolored bird on his head. “Wow,” the bartender says, “Where did you get that?” “I got him in France,” the bird answers, “They have millions of them there.”

Again the humor arises from the juxtaposition of the two speaker’s differing points of view, each oblivious to the others’. But this version is less funny because the differing contexts of understanding are confounded with the violation of expectation by having a talking bird, and that diminishes the effect of the context shift.

In the original joke, the opposition of the two speakers’ contexts is pure funny. Why, exactly, I still don’t know.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Food and Health

Food and Health

I’m always fascinated to learn interesting facts about food that has (allegedly) important health consequences, for example, that red wine is good for your heart. I am skeptical of all such claims, because they are incomplete, always changing, and often contradictory. Red wine may be good for the heart, but it can’t be that good for the brain, for example.

Nevertheless I did a quick search through back issues of Science News, a magazine I read, to collect some recent food claims. Here is a selection of what I found:

Broccoli Prevents Cancer
A federal study has found that selenium eaten as a pure compound may not protect as well as selenium consumed as a part of food such as wheat or broccoli.
April 21, 2001; Vol. 159, No. 16 , p. 248

Broccoli Prevents Skin Cancer
When sulforaphane, a compound found in broccoli, is applied to the skin of cancer-prone mice after sun exposure, they develop fewer skin tumors then they otherwise would.
Nov. 19, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 21 , p. 334

Broccoli, Turkey Control Blood Sugar
A cup of cooked broccoli typically contains 22 µg of chromium, and 3 ounces of cooked turkey-leg meat has 100 µg. April 16, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 16

Broccoli, Sushi Prevent Prostate Cancer
Prostate cancer remains the most common malignancy among U.S. men, and internationally it ranks fourth. Though few studies have offered much insight into what triggers this disease, a growing number of researchers have found evidence suggesting that dietary selenium protects men against this cancer. Sushi and organ meats and broccoli
Week of May 3, 2003; Vol. 163, No. 18

Fruits And Vegetables Prevent Colorectal Cancer
Fiber in foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can reduce colorectal cancer, coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and perhaps other ills.
March 11, 2006; Vol. 169, No. 10

Chocolate Reduces Blood Pressure
The antioxidant flavonoids abundant in dark chocolate appear to reduce blood pressure and perhaps protect people from dangerous blood clots. However, Most commercial chocolate products have few natural flavonoids left in them. However they are found in tea and apples.
Feb. 25, 2006; Vol. 169, No. 8

Chocolate is Usually Contaminated with Lead
The shell of cocoa beans is a remarkably efficient sponge for lead. It can tightly bind the metal, preventing it from reaching the interior bean. Samples of shells from Nigeria contained between 60 and 417 nanograms of lead per gram. That's at least 300 times as much lead as was in the beans inside. Still, there was lead in the cocoa beans. Dark chocolates, including bittersweet and semisweet, had the highest lead concentrations—roughly 30 to 70 nanograms of the heavy metal per gram versus just 11 to 35 ng/g in milk chocolate. Dec. 17, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 25

Tofu Reduces Lead Poisoning
Lead, a toxic heavy metal, can show up in the most unexpected places. For instance, several recent studies documented a worrisome tainting of calcium supplements. A new study finds that for people who can’t avoid such lead exposures, there may be a simple means to limit the body’s uptake: Eat tofu.
June 23, 2001; Vol. 159, No. 25

Cranberry Juice, Chocolate Prevent Heart Attacks
Molecule for molecule, the antioxidants in chocolate exceed the potency of vitamin C, but cranberries even moreso.
March 29, 2003; Vol. 163, No. 13

Coffee and Tea Prevent Liver disease
A study showed that people who routinely drank more than two cups of coffee or tea per day faced only half the risk of being hospitalized with cirrhosis and other types of serious liver disease.
Jan. 21, 2006; Vol. 169, No. 3

Milk Improves Lung Functioning
Physicians in New Zealand have linked the vitamin to improved lung function. Most commercial milk has added Vitamin D.

Cheese Cures Arthritis and Asthma
Data from a new study finds that an unusual fatty acid, a type of dairy fat, can modulate the injurious, runaway inflammation that underlies arthritis, asthma, and many other diseases.
Oct. 29, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 18

Teflon Kills You
High concentrations of a chemical used in the production of Teflon surfaces have turned up in people living near a Teflon-manufacturing plant in West Virginia. It is the first government-sponsored epidemiological study of the chemical, known both as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and C-8. Teflon is not a food, of course, but it is widely used in food-preparation kitchens. (Later studies clarified that the risk emerges only when an empty Teflon-coated pan is left on a high burner for at least 15 minutes. Since I never do that, I have kept all my pans, but some friends have traded them all in for cast iron.)
Aug. 27, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 9

Black Beans Prevent Heart Attack
One serving of black beans a day helps stave off heart disease, researchers have confirmed in a new study. July 9, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 2

Mayonnaise Makes you Blind
A pair of new studies from a Boston research team links mayonnaise, as well as certain vegetable oils, to an elevated risk of age-related cataracts.
May 14, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 20

Food Additive Prevents Peanut Poisoning
The additive is BHT (for butylated hydroxytoluene), and the poison is aflatoxin, a fungus, and one of the most deadly poisons known to man, and commonly found in peanuts and even in commercial peanut butter. Food laced with BHT almost eliminates aflatoxin poisoning in turkeys, animals that are substantially more sensitive to it than people are. March 26, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 13

Overcooked Meat Kills You
On Jan. 31, the National Toxicology Program (NTP), part of the National Institutes of Health, published its latest update of materials known to cause cancer in people. Among the 246 agents on the lists are the heterocyclic amines that develop in meats when they're cooked too long at high temperature.
Week of Feb. 19, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 8

Beer Prevents Cancer From Overcooked Meat
A new study shows that, at least in mice, beer limits the DNA damage triggered by exposure to the carcinogens that form in overcooked meat.
March 5, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 10

Tea Makes You Lose Weight
Oolong tea was enriched with some of the antioxidant compounds that naturally occur in green tea. Men who drank this hybrid brew during a 3-month study in Japan lost 1.1 more kilograms in weight than did men drinking conventional oolong tea—with no other difference in their respective diets or exercise.
Feb. 12, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 7

Tea Treats Prostate Cancer
Tea drinking appears to seed the body with compounds that retard the growth of prostate cancer, a new study finds. Although the men taking part in the new study all had advanced prostate cancer, the data suggest that it might be possible to slow the early development of this cancer, and perhaps others, with regular consumption of tea.
May 1, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 18

Green Tea Prevents Breast Cancer
Now, California researchers report data suggesting that drinking green tea may lower a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. The study failed to identify a similar advantage from black tea, much less coffee or herbal "teas" such as chamomile.
Sept. 13, 2003; Vol. 164, No. 11

Tea and Wine Improve Your Memory
The antioxidants in tea, wine, red fruit juices, and chocolate that may help lower people's risk of heart disease. They’re also among the berry pigments that experiments have shown boost memory and other aspects of mental functioning in geriatric animals (SN: 9/18/99, p. 180: www.sciencenews.org/sn_arc99/9_18_99/fob2.htm).

Tea Prevents Cavities
Globally, in terms of its popularity as a drink, tea ranks second only to water. Researchers have recently turned up a variety of reasons to reinforce tea-quaffing habits. The newest: It slows the growth of germs that lead to cavities.
July 14, 2001; Vol. 160, No. 2

Coffee Treats Diabetes
New data now indicate that drinking coffee lots of it, and especially the caffeinated form—can curb type II diabetes.
Jan. 17, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 3

Vinegar Treats Diabetes
Two tablespoons of vinegar before a meal—perhaps, as part of a vinaigrette salad dressing—reduces the spike in blood concentrations of insulin and glucose that come after a meal. Dec. 18, 2004; Vol. 166, No. 25/26

Sauerkraut Prevents Breast Cancer
Midwestern scientists have found evidence that something in sauerkraut and related foods blocks the action of estrogen, a hormone that can fuel the growth of breast cancer and other reproductive-tract malignancies.
March 3, 2001; Vol. 159, No. 9

Fish Prevents Heart Disease
The Food and Drug Administration has announced that it will allow food manufacturers to make health claims for omega-3 fatty acids typically found in coldwater fish. Food labels can now note that products containing these oils might provide some protection from heart disease.
Sept. 25, 2004; Vol. 166, No. 13

Cinnamon Cleans the Breath
Dental scientists in Chicago have shown that an essential oil from cinnamon can kill oral bacteria, including germs responsible for a chemical that imparts the rotten-egg smell to the breath. May 22, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 21

Trans Fats Kill You
Scientists have warned us that A recent study has strengthened the caution, as researchers have investigated these fats in the bodies of first-heart-attack patients.
Whenever food manufacturers transform vegetable oils into solids—via a process called hydrogenation—trans fats are created. For the sake of texture and preservation, trans fats show up in most margarines, shortening, and foods cooked with partially hydrogenated oils. Eating trans fats can lead to heart problems. Different types of trans fats also occur naturally in dairy foods and some meats, but they tend to have health benefits
April 10, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 15

Tuna Kills You
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the first time gave joint advice on what types of fish are best to eat for those concerned about toxicity from mercury. Because mercury is harmful to the developing brain, health officials suggest that pregnant women, nursing mothers, women who may become pregnant, and young children reduce their intake of mercury.
March 27, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 13

Yogurt Prevents Osteoporosis
Foods such as yogurts supplemented with fiberlike sugars are commercial goods seeded with ingredients that boost their nutritiousness or healthfulness. Makers of foods doctored with these unusual, nearly flavorless sugars claim that their products improve the body's absorption of calcium in the diet, thereby strengthening bones. A report of the most recent animal tests suggests that by judiciously supplementing the diet with these carbohydrates, an elderly woman might significantly reduce her risk of osteoporosis.
Feb. 7, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 6

Eggs Improve Your Memory
Egg yolks are a rich source of choline. Researchers reported that a choline can substantially preserve an aging brain's dexterity. An experimental formulation of choline known as cytidine (5')-diphosphocholine (CDP-choline), might however limit the subtle onset of mental fuzziness that comes with age. At least, that's what it did for rats.
Nov. 22, 2003; Vol. 164, No. 21

Strawberries Prevent Cancer and Heart Disease
scientists at Cornell University find that strawberries may offer potent benefits in the body's fight against cancer and heart disease.
Oct. 18, 2003; Vol. 164, No. 16

Soybeans Lower Cholesterol
Soy can lower blood concentrations of the so-called bad, or low-density-lipoprotein (LDL), cholesterol. July 5, 2003; Vol. 164, No. 1 [I vaguely recall reading that this alleged benefit of soy has recently (in 2007) been overturned by subsequent studies].

French Fries Give you Heart Disease
Numerous studies have linked heavy consumption of saturated fats to elevated cholesterol, a major risk factor for heart disease. Now, Johns Hopkins University researchers tie high-saturated-fat found in French Fries to abdominal fat, a second risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
April 5, 2003; Vol. 163, No. 14

French Fries and Gingerbread Kill You
Acrylamide is a chemical that causes cancer in rats and is widely found in gingerbread. The FDA tested 53 samples of french fries, which are likely to develop fairly high concentrations of acrylamide. In the new survey, this food again had substantial acrylamide in every sample.
Dec. 14, 2002; Vol. 162, No. 24

Microwave Popcorn Kills You
Researchers with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services initially investigated a report of eight cases of serious lung disease among former employees of a microwave-popcorn factory. Half of these were mixers—workers who add salt and flavorings to tanks of soybean oil. The air at their workstation not only carried a strong buttery odor but also bore a cloud of visible dust. The other four workers came from popcorn-packaging stations 15 to 90 feet away. The rate of lung disease turned out to be about 31 percent for mixers, 1 percent for packers, and zero elsewhere in the plant.
May 11, 2002; Vol. 161, No. 19

Conclusion: The Perfect Dinner
A hamburger (barbequed, not fried in a teflon pan), with a large side dish of broccoli, and plenty of beer (in case the meat is overcooked), served with red wine and green tea (this is a classy dinner). Second course: fried eggs on a bed of sauerkraut. And for dessert, chocolate-covered tofu. Mmmm, delicious!