It is not just work and dealing with a different culture that has been keeping me from blogging, though. Academia is as much a social institution as any other human endeavour, and, while at a large university like the University of Toronto it is easy to keep your head down and coast along without ever really being aware of the academic community (aside, of course, from the people teaching your classes), at a small institution like MPIDS the sense of community is much more universal (in general atmosphere, MPIDS has much in common with UTIAS. For those who have forgotten, you can reread my fan-boyish fawning over UTIAS here). So, there have been a couple nights where I have been out late either enjoying food, wine, and beer with a few people from the Institute or at the Institute itself sharing the aforementioned victuals with a larger portion of the general Institute population.
Last night was one of those nights at the Institute, with the party sparked by the coincidence of a guest speaker (an American professor who I believe currently holds a post at an Italian university) and a birthday (one of the Ph.D. students, who, oddly enough, is also Italian). The guest speaker was particularly popular because his presentation was not so much a serious one but was rather a light-hearted application of visual computation algorithms in real-time. The motivation was ostensibly related to the motion tracking capabilities of the retina, but I found that connection tenuous as best (after all, the problem of motion tracking at a low processing level like the retina is highly dependent upon hardware, and the hardware of the eye and a computer differ greatly). Though posessing only a weak connection to visual perception, the talk was essentially an artistic presentation with a strong mathematical basis, and that can be fun too.
After the talk came the pizza, cake, wine, and beer. It also meant intellectual schmoozing in a whole smattering of languages (primarily German and English, of course, but there was also a little bit of Italian, Russian, and Farsi flying around). I got to meet a large number of people from the Institute that I had not yet had a chance to talk to, and we had some very interesting discussions ranging from politics, history, and languages to neuroscience, mathematics, and evolutionary theory. I will end this post with one of the more interesting classical psychological question series (which is fun to bandy about at parties), and the most tongue-in-cheek response I have yet heard to the query (of course coming, as you will see, from an evolutionary biologist).
The question series goes like this:
You are standing next to a branch in a rail line. A train is hurtling down the track without breaks, and the track it is currently set to go down has five workers on it oblivious to the danger. On the other track is a single worker. Do you throw the switch and kill the single worker or let the train continue on its original course where it will kill five workers?The psychologically interesting thing is that the majority of people would throw the switch in the first formulation of the question but balk at the physical act of pushing the man in the second question off the bridge to his certain death. The snarky response I got from the evolutionary biologist was, "Am I related to any of them?" When I responded that he was not, he shrugged and said, "Oh, well, then it doesn't matter."
You are now standing on a bridge overlooking a set of train tracks. Once again, there are five workers on the tracks below oblivious to a breakless train hurtling toward them. On the bridge with his back to you is a large man unaware of your presence. If you sneak up behind him and push him off the bridge onto the tracks below, he has sufficient mass to cause the train to dislodge from the tracks and come to a halt before it strikes the workers. Do you push the man off the bridge, or do you let the train continue on its path to kill the five workers?