Animal Behavior

In 1949 neurophysiologist Grey Walter built two robot “tortoises” to show that complexity could arise out a very simple nervous system. “Elmer” and “Elsie” each had a light sensor, a touch sensor, a propulsion motor, a steering motor, and two electronic valve-based “neurons.” He found that even with this modest equipment they were capable of phototaxis, finding their way to a recharging station when their batteries ran low. In a subsequent experiment he watched as a robot moved in front of a mirror and responded to its own reflection. “It began flickering,” he wrote. “Twittering, and jigging like a clumsy Narcissus.” He argued that if this behavior were observed in an animal it “might be accepted as evidence of some degree of self-awareness.”

He found that other simple robots were capable of Pavlovian conditioning. When a robot had been taught to seek its “food” near a stool in the middle of the floor, Walter took to blowing a police whistle and kicking the robot before it found the target. “After it had been whistled at and kicked about a dozen times, it learned that a whistle meant trouble. We then removed the specific stimulus — the stool. The whistle was blown, and it avoided the place as if there were a stool there.”

He advanced to a two-note whistle: One pitch was sounded before the robot touched an object, to associate it with avoidance. The other was sounded before it found its food, to associate it with appetite. “The effect of giving both notes was almost always disastrous; it went right off into the darkness on the right-hand side of the room and hovered round there for five minutes in a sort of sulk. It became irresponsive to stimulation and ran round in circles.”

“As you would expect, there are only three ways of alleviating this condition. One of them is rest; in this case that was sufficient, it was left alone to play around in the dark until the effect of all the trauma had died down and it found its way home in the end. Another method is shock, to turn the circuits right off and start again with a clean bill. The most satisfactory method for my purpose is surgery, to dissect out the circuit.”

(Philip Husbands, et al., The Mechanical Mind in History, 2008, and J.M. Tanner & B. Inhelder, eds., Discussions on Child Development, 1958.)

The Demon-Haunted World

Index entries from The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer’s history of myth and religion:

Africa, North, charms to render bridegroom impotent in
Africa, South, disposal of cut hair and nails in; magic use of spittle in; story of the external soul in
Anointing stones, in order to avert bullets from absent warriors; in a rain-charm
Apple-tree, barren women roll under, to obtain offspring; straw man placed on oldest; torches thrown at; as life-index of boys
Bag, souls of persons deposited in a
Beating a man’s garments instead of the man; frogs, as a rain-charm
Birds, cause headache through clipped hair; absent warriors called
Charms, to prevent the sun from going down
Chastity observed for sake of absent persons; as a virtue not understood by savages
Clothes, magic sympathy between a person and his
Conception in women caused by trees
Continence, required during search for sacred cactus
Departmental kings of nature
Dogs crowned
East Indies, pregnant women forbdden to tie knots
Fairies, averse to iron
Fish, magical image to procure
Foreskins used in rainmaking
Gout, transferred to trees
Hyaenas, supposed power over men’s shadow
Impregnation of women by the sun
Jar, the evil of a whole year shut up in
Lemon, external souls of ogres in
Magnets thought to keep brothers at unity
Toothache, transferred to enemies
Twins, water poured on graves of
Whale’s ghost, fear of injuring

Augustus De Morgan wrote, “My opinion of mankind is founded upon the mournful fact that, so far as I can see, they find within themselves the means of believing in a thousand times as much as there is to believe in, judging by experience.”

Making Fun

Minutes from a New Yorker editorial meeting to consider the week’s cartoon submissions, Feb. 5, 1935:

PRICE, Gar.: Man and two small boys in picture gallery; man has stopped before nude painting. One of the small boys is saying to the other, ‘There’s something about it gets the old man every time.’

Not right type of people; should be smart people.

SHERMUND: Scene in beauty parlor; masseuse is massaging the back of a woman’s neck and saying, ‘You’re one of the lucky few who have a normal skin, Madame.’

Make better drawing; this too unpleasant.

DUNN: Couple looking at grandmother in next room mixing herself a whiskey and soda. ‘Just because it’s Mother’s Day she thinks the lid is off.’

Better whiskey bottle.

The Tuesday afternoon cartoon meeting had been a fixture in the editorial routine since the magazine’s inception. Editor Harold Ross would point out each drawing’s weaknesses with knitting needles while art department administrator Daise Terry took notes. The resulting feedback ranged from hopelessly vague (“Make funnier”) to absurdly specific (“Mr. Ross is troubled by the fact that a man wouldn’t use a sledge hammer in the house, and thinks the scene had better be in the back yard with the doll placed on a large stone”).

Among the cartoonists whom this infuriated was James Thurber, who wrote to Terry in resubmitting a rejected drawing in 1937, “If this drawing is not funny, and is not a swell drawing, I shall engage to eat it, and with it all of Price’s fantasies that just miss, all of Taylor’s S. Klein women, and all eleven versions of every drawing Day does of two men in a restaurant. I will also eat every drawing of a man and a woman on a raft, every drawing of a man and a native woman on a desert island, and every drawing of two thin women in big-backed chairs. … I will also eat every drawing of a small animal talking to its parents, and every drawing of two large animals talking about their young.” Terry’s response is not recorded.

(From Ben Yagoda, About Town, 2000.)

Twice Indeed,_headshot.jpg

In Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice, a head injury gives James Bond amnesia, and the world briefly thinks him dead. An obituary appears in the London Times:

To serve the confidential nature of his work, he was accorded the rank of lieutenant in the Special Branch of the RNVR, and it is a measure of the satisfaction his services gave to his superiors that he ended the war with the rank of commander.

In For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, Ben MacIntyre notes that this wording contains a “knowing glimmer of self-congratulation”: Fleming himself had been commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in July 1939 as a lieutenant and was promoted to commander a few months later.

Prince Rupert’s Drops

Drop a bit of molten glass into a bucket of cold water and you’ll produce a teardrop-shaped bauble with a long tail. Surprisingly, you can pound on the bulbous end with a hammer without breaking it, but snipping the delicate tail causes the whole drop to explode. The water hardens the outer shell before the interior has cooled and contracted, so the finished drop carries high compressive stresses on the surface and tensile stress at the core.

The drops were known in northern Germany as early as 1625 and distributed through Europe as toys, though the underlying principles were not well understood until the 20th century. Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682) did not discover the drops but was the first to bring them to England, where Charles II delivered them to the Royal Society. The anonymous Ballad of Gresham College (1663) immortalizes the experiments that followed:

And that which makes their Fame ring louder,
With much adoe they shew’d the King
To make glasse Buttons turn to powder,
If off the[m] their tayles you doe but wring.
How this was donne by soe small Force
Did cost the Colledg a Month’s discourse.

Cover Story

On the floor of a room of area 5, you place 9 rugs. Each is an arbitrary shape but has area 1. Prove that there are two rugs that overlap by at least 1/9.

Click for Answer

A Thief’s Welcome

Idaho farmer John Barnes patented this “coyote alarm” in 1903. Near his sheep pens he mounted a man-shaped scarecrow wearing a metal breastplate. In the breastplate was a cylinder “analogous to the cylinder of a revolver of large size” holding blank cartridges. A clockwork mechanism turned the cylinder, and a plunger dropped at intervals and fired a cartridge. Barnes would wind up the mechanism with a key at dusk, and the artificial farmer would fire its imaginary gun “every quarter of an hour throughout the night.” I wonder what the sheep thought of this.

This is actually less alarming than James Williams’ pest exterminator of 1882. That’s progress.


Sigourney Weaver was born Susan Weaver. She named herself Sigourney at 14, after a character mentioned briefly by Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby:

She came over to me and whispered, ‘I’ve just heard the most surprising thing. Look, please come and see me. I’m staying at my aunt’s … Mrs. Sigourney Howard … phone book …’ She was hurrying away as she spoke, to join her friends who were waiting to drive her home.

“I was so tall,” Weaver told Time in 1986, “and Susan was such a short name. To my ear Sigourney was a stage name — long and curvy, with a musical ring.”

She couldn’t have known it at the time, but it appears that Fitzgerald intended Sigourney to be a man’s name: He had borrowed it from his friend Father Sigourney Fay, to whom This Side of Paradise is also dedicated.

“Jordan, it is clear, is here adopting the formal ‘English’ style of addressing her aunt by her husband’s name(s),” writes John Sutherland in Curiosities of Literature. “This was not just etiquette in the best circles; it was standard procedure in phone books of the 1920s. The husband paid the bills, and his was the name listed.”

Black and White

speckmann chess problem

By W. Speckmann, 1973. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Have Gun

Welshman Henry Morton Stanley — famous for seeking explorer David Livingstone in Africa — fought on both sides in the American Civil War.

In April 1862, when just 21 years old, he fought in the Confederate Army’s 6th Arkansas infantry regiment at the Battle of Shiloh. Captured, he swore allegiance to the United States and joined the Union Army in June. He was discharged after two weeks’ service due to severe illness, but recovered and went on to join the U.S. Navy in 1864.

In The Galvanized Yankees, Dee Brown writes, Stanley “probably became the only man ever to serve in the Confederate Army, the Union Army, and the Union Navy.”

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