Canary-Fighting Ring Busted

19 arrested over Connecticut Canary bird fighting ring

(Via FARK.)

I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat

Canaries in Coal Mines

It is gruesome and cruel to have critters fight each other for our pleasure and profit. And yet we have decided it’s okay if two boxers duke it out in a ring, presumably because they are sentient and exercised their free will (do we still believe in free will?), and chose to do so.

I guess if you believe in determinism, you might say the boxers didn’t really choose to fight. Lots of money was dangled in front of them as an incentive, like a big carrot, and maybe machismo and testosterone was involved too. So their brains responded to the stimulus by causing their bodies to don boxing gloves, step into the ring, and proceed to engage in pugilation.

I have to mention Betta Fish (Siamese Fighting Fish). So easy to care for; just be sure to do those water changes.

Is it wrong to have bugs fight each other?

Japanese Bug Fights (here’s a wiki entry on the topic; I like how each bug has a “Special Move” )
Gladiator Bugs (Americanized version)

What about having robots fight each other? Is that wrong?

Robot Wars

Maybe it’s okay with robots, because (as far as we can tell; maybe this is the Problem of Other Minds) they do not experience pain, whereas bugs, fish, dogs, and canaries do (as far as we can tell). Is that it? Is the presence or absence of pain what decides whether it’s okay or not? But suppose we introduce anesthesia…

Here, robots may be serving a stand-in for the Philosophical Zombie. Would it be wrong to have zombies fight each other?


Hari Seldon lives!

Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy involved a futuristic science named psychohistory, which enabled one to predict the future history (economics, wars, mass migrations, societal rise and collapse) of large aggregates of people. (Hmm, that reminds me of my earlier post regarding anomalous synchronous behavior of large aggregates of the hominid H. sapiens.)

Well, here’s a report from Science Daily about the development of technology to “forecast humanity’s needs.”

And here’s the paper that prompted the Science Daily report: Vespignani A., Predicting the behavior of techno-social systems, Science. 2009 Jul 24;325(5939):425-8.

The Institute of Psychohistory (makes me think of the Second Foundation?)

Addendum (08/20/09): Can Game Theory Predict When Iran Will Get the Bomb? (New York Times)

The spreadsheet included almost 90 players. Some were people, like the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; others were groups, like the U.N. Security Council and Iran’s “religious radicals.” Next to each player, a number represented one variable in Bueno de Mesquita’s model: the extent to which a player wanted Iran to have the ability to make nuclear weapons. The scale went from 0 to 200, with 0 being “no nuclear capacity at all” and 200 representing a test of a nuclear missile. … But as the computer model ran forward in time, through 2009 and into 2010, positions shifted. … Amid the thousands of rows on the spreadsheet, there’s one called Forecast. It consists of a single number that represents the most likely consensus of all the players. It begins at 160 — bomb-making territory — but by next year settles at 118, where it doesn’t move much. “That’s the outcome,” Bueno de Mesquita said confidently, tapping the screen.

That’s absolutely fascinating. Here’s a forth-coming book that Dr. De Mesquita has written; I have pre-ordered it.

$Detexify^{2}$: LaTeX Symbol Classifier

Note to self: this may prove useful. Looks rather cool. Via MetaFilter.

detexify blog


Published in: on 21 July 2009 at 9:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jupiter Strike

Pre-emptive strike on Jupiter brings solar system to the brink of interplanetary war!

Take that, Jupiter!

Mars and Venus are monitoring the situation with bated breath.

Exactly 15 years after Shoemaker-Levy 9!

Isn’t there speculation that Jupiter serves a sort of protective function for the Earth? Incoming threats like comets and asteroids will tend to get caught in Jupiter’s gravity well, before reaching the Earth?

Maybe not:

Jupiter Both an Impact Source and Shield for Earth

Jupiter both protects and endangers us

Jupiter increases risk of comet strike on Earth

Whether they find life there or not, I think Jupiter should be called an enemy planet.

— Classic Jack Handey quote

Europa Strike, by Ian Douglas (a nom de plume of William H. Keith, Jr.)

This is the third book of the Heritage Trilogy, which in turn is the first of a trilogy of trilogies (a meta-trilogy?) about the adventures of the U.S. Marines in space. The last book of the last trilogy, Semper Human, was published only this past May. This is an example of the sub-genre of science fiction called “military SF”.

Maybe the dreaded Xul (Hunters of the Dawn) detected a nascent civilization on Jupiter, and decided to drop an asteroid on it!

Addendum (9/22/10): Earth to Have Closest Encounter With Jupiter Until 2022


Through my university account, I have access to an amazing storehouse of scholarly knowledge named JSTOR. This garden of intellectual delights contains thousands of academic articles and pamphlets, some going back to the 1800’s and earlier, in PDF format. The older articles are obviously scanned in from the originals, and they have been scanned very meticulously. By this I mean that the pages were carefully aligned to the scanner, so that the lines of text aren’t tilted about all a-kilter; this rectification must have been achieved by computer. (My guess is that newer articles were already available in PDF format, so they didn’t need to be scanned in.)

But the really cool thing about JSTOR is that the words in the body of the articles — not just the titles, not just the abstracts — have been indexed. The JSTOR staff must have had some sort of optical character recognition software to do this. This means that one can go to JSTOR, do a search on arbitrary search terms, and receive hits even in ancient articles with archaic fonts, even if the search terms occur in the body of the article rather than merely in the title.

It would be very tedious to manually go through hard-copies of journals, looking for all occurrences of some search term such as panpsychism or Aquinas. But with JSTOR, one can do it in seconds.

Do you realize how awesome this is?

From doing many, many searches on JSTOR on various topics of interest, it has become clear to me that if you’re going to write an article and you want future generations to be able to find your article, it would help to choose the title very carefully; rather than some vague title like Further Thoughts on a Recent Controversy, insert concrete topical words in the title, e.g. The Split-Brain Experiments Revisited. Also, you should try to follow the consensus spelling of proper names (e.g., Scriabin vs. Skryabin, or Rachmaninoff vs. Rachmaninov), even if you don’t agree with them. Otherwise, if people try to use the most common spelling of terms to find articles, they will miss your article! Of course, what might be a consensus in one era may drop out of favor in another era.

Rare Piano Scores in PDF Format

I found this website recently: You purchase the scores online, and in a follow-up email they send you hyperlinks. You then click on the links to download the sheet music in a ZIP file.

I purchased transcriptions of performances by Horowitz, Volodos, and Pletnev. I also bought a Rimsky-Korsakoff collection, hoping to see an interesting transcription of Flight of the Bumblebee. No, I am not saying that I have the technique to play these very difficult pieces; I am just interested to see how some interesting pianistic effects were achieved. For example, Cziffra’s rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee really does conjure a big, fuzzy bumblebee buzzing menacingly about your head.

Years ago, I bought a whole collection of rare piano scores in PDF format from a guy in Belgium. The breadth of his collection was remarkable; he must have been collecting for many years, and he must have been very determined. Unfortunately, I can no longer find his website!

I am wondering whether there is some relationship between and that Belgian collector. Perhaps the collector upgraded his website, and is the result? Or perhaps was a rival website, and they cornered the market and the collector had to shut down?

Published in: on 17 July 2009 at 6:50 am  Comments (4)  

The Mangler, and The Great Appeal of Horror Fiction

I.K. (and I think his brother F.K.), R.M.B., and my father have asked, why do people like to read horror stories, or watch horror movies? Why would I ever want to be scared?

I think part of the fun is seeing how skillfully a master yarn spinner like Stephen King unfolds (unmangles? see below) a story. In the Introduction of Night Shift, an anthology of short stories by Mr. King, John D. MacDonald writes:

Note this. Two of the most difficult areas to write in are humor and the occult. In clumsy hands the humor turns to dirge, and the occult turns funny.

So, part of the fun is just admiring how well a skilled story teller writes.

But this is only enjoying the horror story as a work of art, admiring a master’s expertise in his craft. I think there is a more visceral appeal of the horror story: the very experience of submerging oneself in a world created by the writer. (And it seems appropriate to evoke viscera when discussing horror fiction. Glistening internal organs sliding past one another…) Mr. King explains it better than I can.

One of my favorite short stories by Stephen King is The Mangler, which I have mentioned previously, and which appears in Night Shift. The Foreword that he wrote for that book is in itself a good read. There, Mr. King writes:

Fear makes us blind, and we touch each fear with all the avid curiousity of self-interest, trying to make a whole out of a hundred parts, like the blind men with their elephant.

We sense the shape. Children grasp it easily, forget it, and relearn it as adults. The shape is there, and most of us come to realize what it is sooner or later: it is the shape of a body under a sheet. All our fears add up to one great fear, all our fears are part of that great fear – an arm, a leg, a finger, an ear. We’re afraid of the body under the sheet. It’s our body. And the great appeal of horror fiction through the ages is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths [italics mine].

I think Mr. King is onto something here. I think that the appeal of horror movies and horror stories, at least in part, is that it allows us a safe way to consider our own mortality, our own funeral, in an indirect and vicarious manner.

(I suppose I.K. might respond, “But that begs the question. Why would I ever want to rehearse my own death?” :-))

Mr. King wrote a book entitled On Writing, subtitled A Memoir of the Craft, in which he recounts his career as a writer. I think that The Mangler is based on some of his real-life experiences with laundries. On pp. 19 and 24 of On Writing, he mentions that when he was a child his mother once worked in a laundry on the “mangler crew,” and hated it.

One meaning of the word mangle comes from the laundry business, which is “to press fabrics by means of heated rollers” (so a mangler is a machine which presses fabrics). But another meaning is “to mutilate or disfigure by battering, hacking, cutting, or tearing”. In The Mangler, Mr. King is playing on the two senses of the word. This is delicious, delectable; it is fun to toggle back and forth between the two meanings, one mundane and the other gruesome, in my mind.

On p. 58 of On Writing, we learn that as a college student Mr. King himself picked up a job working in a laundry. And then on the next page, p. 59, we read about this creepy incident in the laundry:

On one occasion I heard a strange clicking from inside one of the Washex three-pockets which were my responsibility. I hit the Emergency Stop button, thinking the goddam thing was stripping its gears or something. I opened the doors and hauled out a huge wad of dripping surgical tunics and green caps [apparently, local hospitals used the laundry’s services — M.], soaking myself in the process. Below them, lying scattered across the colander-like inner sleeve of the middle pocket, was what looked like a complete set of human teeth. It crossed my mind that they would make an interesting necklace, then I scooped them out and tossed them into the trash.

Try to imagine if you had unexpectedly been presented with a collection of human teeth, grinning up at you in a disembodied rictus. I think I would have felt a giddy, fleeting fear in the pit of my stomach. It would make me think of somebody being tortured, and getting his or her teeth pulled without anesthesia. And I would think of a dread voodoo that requires human teeth as an ingredient for some black magic spell.

And then on p. 60, we read that Mr. King had a “floor-man” (which I take to be a sort of supervisor) named Harry. Mr. King describes this guy as follows:

Harry had hooks instead of hands as a result of a tumble into the sheet-mangler during World War II (he was dusting the beams above the machine and fell off). A comedian at heart, he would sometimes duck into the bathroom and run water from the cold tap over one hook and water from the hot tap over the other. Then he’d sneak up behind you while you were loading laundry and lay the steel hooks on the back of your neck.

I think it is likely that these somewhat negative or creepy experiences with laundries inspired Mr. King to write The Mangler.

Here’s an academic paper by poet Susan Stewart (now at Princeton University), in which she examines the inner workings of the horror story:

Susan Stewart, The Epistemology of the Horror Story, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 95, No. 375 (Jan. – Mar., 1982), pp. 33-50

Professor Stewart’s article starts:

NOWHERE ARE NARRATIVE’S IMAGES of unfolding, of hesitation, of the step and the key more thematically profound and more clearly worked on the level of effect than in the horror story.

Unfolding. There’s that word again.

Addendum (07/16/09): Cleaner has head cut off in giant meat blending machine. (via Fark)

Addendum (07/22/09): Woman found dead in a machine at a food processing plant. Investigators believe it was accidental. She died from “crushing injuries from a robotic packaging machine.” (via Fark)

Addendum (05/21/10): Man freed after getting hand caught in wood-chipping machine at Buderim. Reminds me of a scene from this movie. (via Fark)

Addendum (05/23/10): N.Y.-Toronto train kills 2 in separate collisions. Reminds me of Stephen King’s evil train, Blaine the Train. (via Fark)

Police: Man sucked into sausage seasoning machine. It “somehow” became activated while being cleaned. Somewhat more reminiscent of the first Mangler movie than either of the two sequels.

Addendum (07/28/10): Missing man crushed in trash compactor

Addendum (07/28/10): Worker dies after being crushed in paper roller machine in Claremont

Addendum (08/13/10): 2 NC men rescued after being trapped in hot dryer. “Authorities say one man got into the dryer to free an item that was jammed and he was overcome by the heat.”

(Recall that the original Mangler story was set in an industrial laundry facility.)

Addendum (09/28/10): Gardener decapitated in freak wood chipper accident

Addendum (01/24/11): Tortilla Factory Worker Killed in Mixing Accident. Sounds more like a Masher or Crusher, than a Mangler.

Addendum (04/12/11): Man dies after falling into pasta machine.

Addendum (05/24/11): Madelia man killed after being run over by his own riding mower.

Addendum (06/19/11): Woman killed in Bellingham steam roller accident.

Addendum (08/22/11): Lawnmower Slips From Jack, Kills Cemetery Worker.

Addendum (08/26/11): FDA warns of strangulation with massage machine.

Addendum (08/29/11): Worker’s leg crushed at Pepsi plant in Tampa. “The St. Petersburg Times reports this was the third major casualty at the plant in six months.”

Addendum (08/30/11): Sky Harbor worker gets trapped under baggage carousel. “The cause of the incident is not known.”

Addendum (09/21/11): Company fined over worker killed while cleaning blender.

Addendum (11/13/11): Child Saved From Washing Machine. “Surprisingly, that machine was out of order. ‘And I haven’t been able to run it since, and I haven’t been able to run it just before.’ ”


Have you ever wondered if that laundry machine you told me about is haunted, Johnny?

— Quote from The Mangler, by Stephen King

(12/18/11: This one was so striking that I was compelled to give it its own post.)

Addendum (11/18/11): Alton man dies in wood chipper accident in Belleville.

Addendum (11/27/11): Worker’s hand minced in Swedish meatball mishap

Addendum (12/18/11): Woman dies in freak NYC elevator accident

Addendum (12/18/11): Man dies in horrific accident after getting stuck in food grinder at hummus plant

Addendum (5/8/12): Horror as boy, 12, is crushed to death by automatic gate while playing game of chicken with friends

4th Of July On The Mall

For R.M.B.

How long it take to get home?

If you’re talking about having to navigate the metro, it wasn’t too bad, despite the crush of the madding crowd. We used the L’Enfant Plaza metro station, which has three entrances. The entrance nearest the Mall was mobbed. But we walked about four more blocks to another entrance (the one that I used to leave the metro station earlier that day), which was much less crowded. I was able to get onto the orange line without problem, and from there it was a straight shot to Rosslyn with no transfers. I’d estimate that walking to the metro took 15 minutes and then getting to Rosslyn took another 15 minutes.

But the metro car was packed, and when we stopped at other metro stations (Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Metro Center) people were pushing to get into the car. Even when I got off at Rosslyn, people were pushing to get into the car. I guess at Rosslyn, people had been watching fireworks from the Iwo Jima Memorial.

I don’t know how I.K. and E.N. fared because they took the yellow line to Pentagon City, but I suspect that they were able to catch a train even before I did. They were running to catch a train that had just pulled in.

I.K. brought some stuff to eat: baguette, multi-grain bread, spreadable goat cheese, roast beef, smoked salmon, seedless green grapes, cherries, olives. I brought cherries, chunks of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese (which unfortunately neither I.K. nor E.N. ventured to try), chips, and some cookies from Switzerland that K.C. had given me. E.N. brought lychees (I.K. thought she had said “light cheese”) and ate only one; I ate all the rest! I.K. also brought a game named Loaded Questions, which we played after eating and before the fireworks started.

On my way to the Mall, I picked up a hard copy of The Onion outside the L’Enfant Plaza metro, and chuckled when I read this story: Area Grandmother Tries Indian Food. I showed it to E.N. and told her that it reminded me very much of her. I.K. agreed; he had independently read it and said that he, too, had thought of her. E.N. got halfway through the article, thinking it was for real, before realizing it was The Onion. She said that she had been asking herself, “What newspaper would print a story like this?” before looking at the name of the newspaper. She then read it, now with the understanding that it was a joke, and was chuckling, saying that it really did sound like her. (I’ll note that she declined to eat the salmon that I.K. brought, and the goat cheese was too sour for her. And when she tried Thai iced tea at Sala Thai this past Thursday, she recoiled, saying “No no no no no no…”)

Watching the fireworks on the Mall was surprisingly pleasant this time. In years past, I didn’t have such a good experience — it had been muggy and crowded, and might have even rained. But yesterday, we got there earlier, around 7 PM, and were able to find a good spot on the Mall half-way between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. And the weather was excellent — cool, not humid.

A girl sitting near us had a shirt with this written across the front:
How Do You Catch A Unique Rabbit? We asked her to take our picture (below), and also asked her to explain the saying on her shirt. She had to admit she didn’t know what it meant, but she hoped it wasn’t something “bad”.

The motivation behind such a shirt is that it would make a good conversation starter. If a guy had wanted to flirt with this girl, he could ask her to explain the saying on her shirt, and she could deliver the punchline; and the two could share a chuckle over a silly, clean joke. The joke even has a follow-up joke, so if the conversation faltered the girl could bring up the second joke. So, the shirt is a device offering an easy way to break the ice.

Some of my answers in the Loaded Questions game:

Jessie Owens

The Singularity


Other answers (not necessarily mine): neck (body part currently aching), cytomegalovirus and zoology (longest English word you can think of), panda and emu (animal you most enjoy seeing in the zoo), two (number of fights one got into), six and fifteen (number of books read in the past year), Catcher in the Rye and The Canterbury Tales (book read in school), bad salty lassi (drink that makes you nauseous), a gun and a certain hamburger (product you wouldn’t endorse), McDonald’s and KFC (favorite fast-food chain), orange and coconut (favorite jelly bean flavor).

PubMed Fun

Two blogs dedicated to finding strange and funny papers listed on PubMed. Our tax dollars are funding this stuff 🙂 ?!

NCBI ROFL (via MetaFilter)

A Good Poop (hmm, it has been a while since the last post)

Published in: on 1 July 2009 at 6:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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