Running With Scissors

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Animals Behaving Badly

Some years ago, a group of fishermen in the United States complained to their state fisheries and wildlife department that they were having trouble catching fish, and they requested that the state develop a fish that was a little less intelligent. I don't know about you, but if I were having trouble outsmarting some fish, I wouldn't want to let other people know about it. I haven't heard that anything came of the fishermen's request. Presumably they went back to sitting on riverbanks without catching anything, or else they took up another sport.

Fools and Their Money

Man persists in thinking he's smarter than the rest of the animal kingdom, despite evidence to the contrary. Just last year in Cincinnati, Ohio, a cow jumped a meatpacker's fence and spent the next twelve days eluding police in helicopters, hunters and Good Morning America's cameras. Twelve days. In the middle of a good-sized city. Dubbed 'Cincinnati Freedom', she was finally captured near Mount Storm Park, after which a parade was held in her honour and the mayor gave her the keys to the city1. Ironically just the month before, Tom Ridge, who is the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, had visited Cincinnati and declared it a model of preparedness in the war on terror. This will worry me when I stop chuckling.

It's bad enough to be outsmarted by a cow, but out in Las Vegas people are lining up to match wits with Ginger, the tic-tac-toe-playing chicken. The bad news is that the chicken is winning.

The $10,000 Chicken Challenge pits one of 15 specially trained live chickens against an untrained live human in an electronic tic-tac-toe game. The chicken always gets the first move. Ducking into a 'thinking booth' in the windowed red coop, the hen pecks at a square, and her choice pops onto a computerized screen. While the human considers his or her move, the bird gets to relax and grab a bite to eat. To collect the $10,000, the player has to win outright; when it's a draw, the chicken is credited with the win.

The game originated at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey and proved so popular that it spread around the country. Heaven only knows why. Consider the odds: in the first 18 months in Atlantic City, the chickens played roughly 270,000 games of tic-tac-toe and lost just nine times. Predictably, the only people who are not amused by the game are members of PETA, who object to chickens spending all their time in casinos associating with drunken humans. If the chickens think this is a bad deal, they aren't saying.

The game-playing birds are trained in Arkansas by Bunky Boger, who trains them for the Tropicana hotels in both Las Vegas and Atlantic City. In spite of the rooster call blaring from the Chicken Challenge machine, Mr Boger actually uses only white leghorn hens. They're prettier to look at, he explains, and the females are more focused and easier to train:

'Roosters have only one thing on their mind, and it's not playing tic-tac-toe.'

Monkey Business

Things could be worse. We could be up to our eyeballs in monkeys.

A couple years ago reports from New Delhi, India, said that thousands of monkeys were creating havoc in the city, barging into government offices, stealing food, and threatening bureaucrats. Threatening bureaucrats! And we call these dumb animals? Earlier this year a couple rhesus macaques escaped from the Biomedical Primate Research Centre in the Netherlands. Apparently the animals' housing had a small hole in it which the monkeys made bigger themselves. There have been escapes in the United States as well. Some years ago twenty-four Indian rhesus monkeys housed at the Tulane Primate Center in Louisiana escaped; eventually all were rounded up. According to Dr Peter Gerone, director of the Primate Center, the monkeys were housed in a quarter-acre chain-link catch pen that encloses a smaller pen. By jiggling the lock, the monkeys apparently opened the gate which leads from the chain-link catch pen to the outside.

More worrisome is a February story from the University of California at Davis, in which a rhesus macaque vanished when her cage was cleaned at the University's California National Primate Research Center. University officials assured the public that the monkey was used for breeding purposes only and was disease free. So why is the escape worrisome? Because the Davis campus is among several institutions in the country that have applied to the National Institutes of Health for the funds to build the National Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases.

The facility would be the only Biosafety Level 4 lab on the West Coast and would house such highly infectious and deadly organisms as anthrax, smallpox, the Ebola virus and the plague. Monkeys for the Level 4 lab would be supplied by the California National Primate Research Center, from which the monkey escaped. School officials promised the monkey would never have escaped from the proposed biodefense lab, which would feature armed guards.

Last I heard the monkey was still on the lam and eluding guards, armed or otherwise. Feeling safer now?

They say that the Internet is proof that a thousand monkeys banging away at keyboards will never produce Shakespeare, but a number of brave souls are testing the theory. Earlier this month researchers at Plymouth University in England gave a computer to six Sulawesi crested macaques in the monkey enclosure at Paignton Zoo in southwest England to see what would happen. What happened is that the monkeys attacked the machine but didn't type much of anything.

According to Mike Phillips, head of the university's Institute of Digital Arts and Technologies, 'the lead male got a stone and started bashing the hell out of (the computer). Another thing they were interested in was in defecating and urinating all over the keyboard. They pressed a lot of S's,' he added. 'Obviously, English isn't their first language.'

(This behaviour is no doubt familiar to those of us who have done technology support in the workplace. Still think we're not related to the monkeys?)

The notion that monkeys typing at random will eventually produce literature is often attributed to Thomas Huxley, who used the argument to demonstrate that life could have originated on Earth purely by chance. However, mathematicians who've calculated the odds of getting something meaningful out of typing monkeys say that it would be statistically impossible to randomly type even the first 100 characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet. If the monkeys typed only in lower case, then in the first 100 characters there are 27100 possible combinations of letters and spaces. And never mind punctuation.

'If each proton in the observable universe were a typing monkey (roughly 1080 in all), and they typed 500 characters per minute - faster than the fastest secretary - around the clock for 20 billion years, then all the monkeys together could make 5x1096 attempts at the characters. It would require an additional 3x1046 such universes to have an even chance at success.'

Well, nuts to them, I say! You have to love a theory that inspires such silliness as the SIMI Project. According to their Web site, the SIMI Project was inspired by the [email protected] project (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence):

The idea behind 100 Monkeys is to harness the unused processing power of personal computers around the world. Actually, we're really harnessing a whole lot of your idle time. What we are hoping for is that you are so bored at work that you will continuously keep our monkeys typing away. Eventually, we hope to muster up a Shakespearean sonnet.

This science stuff is more fun than a barrelful of monkeys.

Running With Scissors
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29.05.03 Front Page

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1The cow is now living out her days at Farm Sanctuary, a shelter in Watkins Glen, New York, that provides lifelong care for over 1500 animals rescued from slaughterhouses, stockyards and factory farms.

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