“Can’t get enough of the poo”

April 25th, 2015

The University of the Watwatersrand writes, on its web site:

Can’t get enough of the poo
24 April 2015

“Tonight you will hear about small animals that play around in poo.”

With this, Professor Marcus Byrne started off his inaugural lecture delivered in the Senate Room at Wits University on Tuesday, 14 April 2015, following his promotion last year to Personal Professor in Zoology in the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences.

Thirty years ago he encountered this enigmatic insect that would “entertain” him, and in turn let him to entertain many others, in the name of science: the dung beetle.

It’s all about the poo

Since he joined Wits in 1987 Byrne had used dung beetles effectively as a vehicle to show evolution at its best. “It is a particularly good vehicle because of its relationship with poo,” Byrne chuckled. “It simply loves its poo and cannot get enough of it.”

“There are over 800 species in South Africa, 2 000 in Africa and 6 000 in the world. And only about 10% roll dung!” Byrne said….

Science makes up for our flaws

As a child growing up in the UK with its “limited fauna”, Byrne’s love for science was sparked by watching the great science communicator, David Attenborough, on television. In his own right, Byrne is an exceptional science communicator. His TEDx talk has attracted over 900 000 hits and with his team was awarded the 2013 Ig Nobel Prize for Astronomy and Biology….

WE WANT YOUR TECH ADVICE about the future of our magazine!

April 24th, 2015

We beg your knowledgeable advice:
What is a good, reliable system to sell PDFs?
If you know, please tell us!


Teeth-Issue-v21i1-250wWe are going to gradually (no rush!) phase out the paper version of the magazine — the Annals of Improbable Research — and phase in PDFs.

Our technical requirements are listed below.

We have so far identified only one promising system: Gumroad.

If you have experienced advice about Gumroad — or if you know of something else that’s good — please tell us. Please e-mail Marc Abrahams <MARC aaattt IMPROBABLE dddooottt COM>.


PDF-symbolWe are good at producing a magazine full of research that makes people LAUGH then THINK. But we are tiny, and we are not very good at handling the maddening mechanics of paper subscriptions — dealing with the ever-increasing vaguaries, complexities and breakdowns of the world’s postal systems, subscription agencies, etc. — those things have been driving us (and some of you, our ever-patient, beloved subscribers) nuts.


The price of buying a year’s subscription will go way down. And(!) you will be able to easily, cheaply obtain any or all of the back issues. There are more than 120 back issues —six timelessly improbable issues from every year since 1995! See all of them, at <http://www.improbable.com/magazine/>


We intend to keep producing the paper version for a while (maybe a year, maybe longer), while we find and test a truly good way to sell the PDF version. After we have a good PDF-sales system in place, and have seen that it really does work well, we will present some nice options to everyone who is subscribing to the paper version.


Here’s what we want the PDF sales system to do.

1A. It should be EASY and QUICK for a customer to buy and download any ONE magazine issue.
1B. It should be EASY and QUICK for a customer to buy and download ALL the issues from a particular calendar year (1995 or 1996 or 1997… or 2014 or 2015).
2. We do NOT want to copy-protect the files.
3. We DO want each downloaded PDF to be “PDF stamped” (every page includes some text that identifies the person who bought it).

BACKGROUND: Things we have tried, that failed.

1. Amazon and iTunes.
Ideally, we would sell the PDFs through the two biggest, easy-to-use online stores: Amazon.com and iTunes.
But Amazon and iTunes refuse to sell PDFs.
Damn, damn, damn.

2. Ebooks (EPUB files).
We have tried selling EPUB versions of the magazine, on Amazon, iTunes, and elsewhere. But EPUBs and nicely formatted magazines, as a combination, are a complicated can-of-worms. Buy us a beer and we’ll tell you all about that. We might some day make additional EPUBs, but not in the very near future.

3. E-junkie.
We do now sell some back issues as PDFs, via E-junkie. E-junkie has its virtues, BUT… E-junkie does not have any good way to handle subscriptions.

Professor Simon Leonardo Altman

April 24th, 2015

Prof-AltmanProfessor Simon Leonardo Altman , Emeritus Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, is a mathematical physicist whose main work is on group theory, quaternions, and solid state. Since his retirement his main interests have been history and philosophy of science, poetry, especially science poetry, and some work on art theory, mainly concerning right-left problems.

His website presents several examples of his science poetry, on subjects as diverse as Theology and the electron, A Villanelle for Hans Christian Ørsted, Heisenberg, and :


Ten people have five pounds of rice.
Five of them eat one pound each.

Five people remain hungry, desperate.

All ten people eat each half a pound of rice.

The above solution would destroy society
as we know it. It is blatant communism.

Political solution
A rice footprint is allotted to each person
that can afford to buy a pound of rice.
The missing half-pound for each of the rest
is compensated as long as the pound-eater
pays someone to dig a grave for one
of the other five that die of hunger.”

For a recent publication by the professor, see: Empirical Studies of the Arts, Volume 31, Number 2 / 2013, Pages: 223 – 238, Right and Left in Art: The Annunciation.

 “Three major effects have been discussed in the literature in order to understand the positioning of the Virgin on the right. They are the direction of motion and the agency effect, both concerning the archangel, and the presentation of the Virgin’s left cheek. It is proposed here that a fourth effect, the power of the first diagonal, is worthy of consideration, largely because it is the only effect that may obtain for variant Annunciations, in which the Virgin is on the left.”

The man who studied Shanghai soup dumplings intensively for a year

April 23rd, 2015

Christopher St. Cavish has, he says, studied Shanghai soup dumplings, and wants to share (for a small fee) the results of his study. He explains:

The Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index is a scientific investigation into the quality of soup dumplings in Shanghai. It applies a quantitative framework to the existing qualitative descriptors of the Shanghai soup dumpling (hereafter also referred to as “xiao long bao”): thin skin, plentiful soup, abundant filling, fresh meat (皮薄 汁多 馅大 肉鲜). A total of 52 restaurants were sampled for this index between December 2013 and October 2014 in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China.

infoviz-01Four measurements were collected: the weight of the intact dumpling (g); the weight of the soup (g); the weight of the filling (g); and the thickness of the skin (mm). This data was then calculated with the formula [(Filling + Soup / Thickness of Skin) x100] to assign a score representing the quality of structural engineering, the major challenge in the construction of a xiao long bao that meets the colloquial standards.

An analysis of the results combined with directly observed sensory research found xiao long bao with a score of 12.00 or above to demonstrate successful engineering. From a sensory perspective, these samples showed only minor variations, and were classified as Class A. Xiao long bao below this threshold but above a score of 6.75 showed satisfactory engineering and were judged Class B. A full explanation of the methodology, a quantitative analysis of the effect of time post-steaming on a dumpling, a list of all restaurants sampled (including directional information for all 18 Class A and Class B restaurants) and more is included in the full index, available for sale.

St. Cavish further explains himself in an essay called “The Man Who Spent A Year Studying Xiao Long Bao“.

(Thanks to investigator Gerry Sussman for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS (distantly related): “An astonishing 400 tons of dumplings a day

Cannibalism nutrition study, or translation snafu?

April 23rd, 2015

Lesson: When translating your study title into another language, check for cannibalism.

stukasHere’s an example:

Nutritional Characteristics of Lithuanian Olympic basketball team-players,” Rimantas Stukas [pictured here], Marius Baranauskas, Proceedings of the International Conference on Non-Communicable Diseases Management, Klaipėda, 2012, p. 25.