Professor Necker on head-bobbing

August 26th, 2015

Prof-NeckerConsiderable academic effort has been expended in the ongoing quest to understand head bobbing in birds (see previous article: ‘Why do birds bob their head while running?’) Now, for an expert overview, turn to the work of Professor Necker (University of Bochum [retired]) The professor explains that :

“Altogether it seems that the visual aspect of head-bobbing is the primary function. Head-bobbing may help in improving object detection when foraging on the ground. The coordination of head-bobbing and leg movements is not necessary for keeping balance but may help in stabilizing position during walking. For those birds that practice head-bobbing, both functions seem to be useful adaptations to cope with walking on the ground.”

But, he also notes:

“Although there are now quite a number of observations available, there is still no unequivocal interpretation of the function of head-bobbing and why some birds bob their head and others do not.“

BONUS: The professor has also compiled a unique online resource, in the form of a ‘List of bird species resting on one leg’ along with a photographic library of supporting evidence.


Podcast 26: A look back at the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize winners (PART 1)

August 25th, 2015

Trod-upon banana peels; deities in toast; late night psychopaths; cat hazards; dog alignment; really, really, really heavy marijuana users; fat people’s shoes; spearmint tea and hairy women; and someone who swallowed a fork — all these all turn up in this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

Click on the “Venetian blinds” icon — at the lower right corner here — to select whichever week’s episode you want to hear:

SUBSCRIBE on, iTunes, or Spotify to get a new episode every week, free.

This week, Marc Abrahams tells about:

The mysterious John Schedler perhaps did the sound engineering this week.

The Improbable Research podcast is all about research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK — real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that may be good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless. CBS distributes it, both on the new CBS web site, and on iTunes and Spotify).

How Do Bumps Form in Carpets?

August 25th, 2015

We’ve all had this experience: we are walking on a carpet, and we suddenly trip over an annoying bump (or “ruck”) that we didn’t know was there. So how did it form?

My colleagues Alpha Lee, Clément Le Goullec, and Dominic Vella from the Mathematical Institute at University of Oxford have just posted a new paper that endeavors to explain an apparent paradox in the formation of carper rucks.

As the authors write in their abstract:

Everyday experience suggests that a ‘ruck’ forms when the two ends of a heavy carpet or rug are brought closer together. Classical analysis, however, shows that the horizontal compressive force needed to create such a ruck should be infinite. We show that this apparent paradox is due to the assumption of inextensibility of the rug. By accounting for a finite extensibility, we show that rucks appear with a finite, non-zero end-shortening and confirm our theoretical results with simple experiments. Finally, we note that the appropriate measure of extensibility, the stretchability, is in this case not determined purely by geometry, but incorporates the mechanics of the sheet.

Figure 1 from the paper by Lee et al.


1997 Ig Nobel Prize winner Sanford Wallace keeps on spamming

August 25th, 2015

Sanford Wallace, who in 1997 was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for his seminal role in manufacturing and distributing spam, has reportedly been convicted yet again on spam-related legal charges.

The Associated Press reports, on August 25, 2015:

Nevada man pleads guilty to sending spam to Facebook users

A Nevada man pleaded guilty Monday to sending more than 27 million spam messages to Facebook users, federal officials said.

U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said Sanford Wallace, of Las Vegas admitted in federal court in San Jose, California, to accessing about 500,000 Facebook accounts and sending unsolicited ads disguised as friend posts over a three-month span.

Wallace collected Facebook user account information by sending “phishing” messages that tricked users of the social networking site into providing their passwords, prosecutors said.

He then used that information to log into their accounts and post spam messages on their friends’ Facebook walls, according to the indictment. Those who clicked on the link, thinking it came from a friend, were redirected to websites that paid Wallace for the Internet traffic.

In 2009, Palo Alto-based Facebook sued Wallace under federal anti-spam laws known as CAN-SPAM, prompting a judge to issue a temporary restraining order banning him from using the website.

Wallace, 47, acknowledged accessing Facebook’s computer network in order to send the spam messages on three occasions between November 2008 and February 2009.

Wallace also admitted that he violated a court order not to access Facebook’s computer network. He was charged with fraud and criminal contempt, Haag said.

Wallace is free on bond and scheduled to be sentenced in December. He faces a $250,000 fine and up to three years in prison.

In 2013, Nate Anderson wrote, for Ars Technica, a history of Mr. Wallace’s spam-related achievements:

Sanford Wallace [selfie]

Sanford Wallace [selfie]

The decade-long quest to stop “Spamford” Wallace
After a spate of lawsuits dating back to the late ’90s, the feds step in

[He found] monetary success—and public notoriety—during the mid-1990s with his Pennsylvania company Cyber Promotions. As a heavyset twentysomething with close-cropped hair and glasses, Wallace first spammed fax machines and then moved on to e-mail, believing that he had a legal right to market his wares as he saw fit. Dubbed “Spamford” by opponents, he eventually embraced the nickname and even registered the domain (In 1997, Hormel sent him a letter objecting to the name on the grounds that it used the company’s potted meat SPAM trademark). Unlike other spammers who hid their identities, Wallace regularly tangled in public with antispam crusaders.

Cyber Promotions quickly became so hated that a dozen Internet service providers, including AOL, sued Wallace in the late 1990s, each hoping to halt his flood of junk e-mail despite the lack of antispam laws at the time. Wallace pressed on…

The Ig Nobel citation, in 1997, said the Ig Nobel Prize for communications was awarded to “Sanford Wallace, president of Cyber Promotions of Philadelphia — neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night have stayed this self-appointed courier from delivering electronic junk mail to all the world.”

[NOTE: The other, older kind of Spam was the subject of the 1992 Ig Nobel prize for nutrition. That prize was awarded to “The utilizers of Spam, courageous consumers of canned comestibles, for 54 years of undiscriminating digestion.”

Wikipedia provides a handy, if not entirely up-to-date, list of links to documents pertaining to some of Mr. Wallace’s many court proceedings.

BONUS: Monty Python’s tribute to Spam:

Dung Beetle insights: The Milky Way, and now the sun

August 24th, 2015

The team that won an Ig Nobel Prize for discovering how dung beetles relate to the Milky Way has now, plus or minus some colleagues, discovered how the those beetles and their cousins relate, also, to the sun.

basil_eljundiThey tell about it in a new study: “Neural coding underlying the cue preference for celestial orientation,” Basil el Jundi [pictured here], Eric J. Warrant, Marcus J. Byrne, Lana Khaldy, Emily Baird, Jochen Smolka, and Marie Dacke, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, epub August 24, 2015. The team is based at Lund University, Sweden, and the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

The 2013 Ig Nobel Prize for biology and astronomy (a joint category!) was awarded to Marie Dacke, Emily Baird, Marcus Byrne, Clarke Scholtz, and Eric J. Warrant, for discovering that when dung beetles get lost, they can navigate their way home by looking at the Milky Way. They wrote up that research, in this paper: “Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation,” Marie Dacke, Emily Baird, Marcus Byrne, Clarke H. Scholtz, Eric J. Warrant, Current Biology, epub January 24, 2013.

Rachel A. Becker describes the new work, in a National Geographic article called “Why Dung Beetles Watch the Sky While Rolling Poop Balls“.

In this video made in 2013, Eric Warrant discusses the dung beetles and the Ig Nobel Prize:

In this video, made earlier that same year, Marie Dacke introduces people to the world od dung beetles and navigation: