Killing pigeons ‘not in their best interests’, find pigeon ethicists


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Best interests at heart?

Feedback is fascinated by the final eight words in this statement: “Disadvantages include the competitive element associated with racing, which creates a strong incentive to kill birds where this is not in their best interests.”

The statement appears in a study called “The ethics of pigeon racing” by Jan Deckers and Silvina Pezzetta, both at Newcastle University in the UK.

Clap for the man

To learn how to treat gonorrhoea in people (rather than, say, in mice), scientists want to study a new infection from its very earliest moments.

The only real way to do that is to deliberately, aforethoughtfully infect a patient. Marcia Hobbs and Joseph Duncan at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did the uncomfortable work of creating a protocol for how to infect a man with gonorrhoea. (The protocol specifies that “Experimental gonorrhea is restricted to male subjects; women are excluded due to potential reproductive complications from ascendant gonococcal infection”.)

Shelley Petersen alerted Feedback to the protocol, which was published in 2019.

Reading through the early sections, Feedback felt the kind of foreboding that mounts slowly, slowly, as a horror movie approaches the actual, dreadful event. Then, suddenly, came the moment:

“3.4 Inoculation Procedure: Recline the subjects on a hospital bed, and ensure that they don sterile gloves immediately before inoculation. Cover the pelvic area with a waterproof plastic drape, and extend the penis through a hole in the drape and cleanse with 70% (v/v) isopropanol wipe. Remove a No. 8 pediatric French catheter, cut to 8 cm in length, from its sterile pouch, holding it between the cut opening and the 5 cm mark. Dip the closed end of the catheter into a container with sterile saline to moisten. This is inserted gently by the physician into the urethra until the 5 cm mark on the catheter is just visible at the opening of the urethra.”

Feedback will not spoil here whatever is left to be spoiled.

No wait for weight

The next step in shoe technology promises good news for obsessive weight watchers. Or bad news. Lots of news, anyway, supplied continuously.

Foram Sanghavi and her team at Tufts University in Massachusetts envision a stream of data emanating from each foot as a person strides, strolls or ambles along – or stands or sits – providing that the person is wearing shoes. Shoes with special sensors.

Their paper, called “An individualized machine learning approach for human body weight estimation using smart shoe insoles“, appears in the journal Sensors. The stated aim is to “achieve accurate real-time monitoring systems for estimating continuous body weight changes”.

The task isn’t easy. Others have taken imperfect steps towards taking useful, accurate data from steps. The paper makes unflattering mention of “poor experimental setups and data collection strategies” and “non-robust data analysis and evaluation methodologies” in some of the research that preceded the researchers’ own.

The road to success has been bumpy. Bumpy roads are themselves part of the difficulty, potentially causing consecutive footsteps to produce strong variation in the output of a shoe insole sensor.

Many people have “unique postures, pressure points, and gait patterns”. Fatigue and postural instability can monkey with anyone’s gait.

The Tufts researchers, with “over 2200 shoe insole sensor measurements collected from 60 participants” under their belt and new artificial intelligence software in their lab, exude optimism about becoming able to accurately, continuously estimate a shod person’s heaviness while the person goes through their idiosyncratically normal daily range of standing, sitting and walking – regardless of whether they saunter, pace, limp, lurch, lounge, sashay, skulk or mosey.

Cheap disco astronomy

You – yes, little (compared with the sun) you – can make your own sun spots. Robert Cumming and a team of scientists in Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and France teach how to do it in a paper called “Why every observatory needs a disco ball“, which they have submitted to the journal Physics Education.

Disco balls are also called mirror balls. The paper explains that “Disco balls are collections of what are known as pinhead mirrors, each the reflective equivalent of a pinhole camera aperture.” What’s more, “consisting of hundreds of small mirror segments, [they] are readily available at remarkably low prices”.

With little effort and minimal danger, a disco ball can reflect light from the sun, projecting tiny, “mildly defocused” images of it all over the surfaces of the room.

Buyer alert! Some disco balls – even expensive ones, the researchers warn – are made from back-coated mirrors, which produce annoying “ghost” images.

Disco astronomy, if you will, on the cheap, bringing new stardom for our star, with 1970s ambience.

Marc Abrahams created the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony and co-founded the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. Earlier, he worked on unusual ways to use computers. His website is

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