The sound of the contrabass serpent

November 28th, 2014

The Edinburgh University collection of historic musical instruments houses what is believed to be the oldest surviving contrabass serpent. It’s called ‘Anaconda’ and was made by Joseph and Richard Wood, of Huddersfield, UK c.1840.


It’s pitched in 16-ft C, a full octave below a standard serpent, which only manages a comparatively lightweight 8-ft C. The collection’s webpage video (which won’t show up unless you have an mp4 player plugin) shows Andre van de Beek playing ‘Hearts of Oak’. If you can’t see the video, listen instead to this recording of a contrabass serpent making a sound loosely inspired by the musical note C# (ish) – which Improbable has archived as an .mp3, an .ogg and a .wav

For further info contrabass serpents of all kinds, see the work of The Serpent Website. Also don’t miss the the April 1st 2005 Newsletter for Serpent Enthusiasts which shows new modern box-like variants of the serpent, which are, outwardly at least, very un-serpent like, and are called instead ‘Squarepents’.

Also see: The lowest of the low, flautily and Contrabassophone and such

Is it Possible to Sanitize Athletes’ Shoes?

November 27th, 2014

A newly published study asks: Is is possible to sanitize athletes’ shoes? The study does not ask whether that matters.

The study is:


Is it Possible to Sanitize Athletes’ Shoes?” Gabriele Messina, Sandra Burgassi, Carmela Russo, Emma Ceriale, Cecilia Quercioli and Cosetta Meniconi, Journal of Athletic Training, epub November 2014. The authors are at various institutions in Sienna, Italy.

Here are details from the study:

We invited 34 athletes to take part in the project: 1 athlete (3%) refused, giving no reason, and 33 (97%) accepted. Two of the 33 (6%) were subsequently excluded because of the irregularity of their weekly training. The final study population was 31 athletes (1 was in the under 16 years group old [3%], 15 were in the under 17 years group [48%], 11 were in the under 19 years groupol [35%], and 4 [13%] were male coaches). The final number of shoes examined was 62.

BONUS FACT (possibly non-sequitorial): Basketball players often look down on microbes on their shoes.



Announcing the Ig Nobel free-tickets-to-the-2015-ceremony winner

November 26th, 2014

Earlier this year we announced that people who purchased a subscription to the Annals of Improbable Research between Sept 18 and Sept 30 would be entered in a drawing for 2 free tickets to next year’s (2015) Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony.

To ensure a fair drawing, we separated the duties of numbering the eligible entries and choosing a number to compare to that list.

We’re happy to announce the winner: Dan Muir of Williamston, Michigan. He writes:

“I am thrilled that I have finally won an award commensurate with my contributions to science! I heard of you through media coverage of the ig nobel prize over the last few years, and finally got around to looking at your website. At that point I was hooked. To have received such a prestigious award is simply icing on the cake.”

Dan has won 2 free tickets to the 2015 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony.

The 2015 ceremony will be the 25th First Annual ceremony. We hope to announce the exact date soon.

Thanks to all who entered!


Automatic gender spoof detection (make-up and mustaches)

November 26th, 2014

Some might take the view that if you use a camera-equipped laptop, tablet, or smartphone, or post your snaps to a social networking site, then various corporate or governmental organisations (or both) might be likely run an automated face-recognition algorithm on your photo(s). If you were to object to such practices, then you might choose to deliberately try and mislead the systems – say, by attempting to disguise (or ‘spoof’) your gender with a drawn-on mustache. Facial recgonition experts worldwide are aware of this, and are taking steps. See the work, for example, of Dr. Antitza Dantcheva, Ph.D, who is a Marie Curie fellow and Post-doctoral researcher in the Spatio-Temporal Activity Recognition Systems (STARS) team at INRIA Méditerranée in Sophia Antipolis, France.

Dr. Dantcheva has co-authored a number of papers which explore the possible effects of such trickery. e.g. ‘Impact of facial cosmetics on automatic gender and age estimation algorithms’, paper 341 in: VISAPP’14, the 9th International Conference on Computer Vision Theory and Applications, January 5-8, 2014, Lisbon, Portugal.

As part of the project, the team searched the Web and assembled a unique photo resource which they call the Makeup Induced Gender Alteration (MIGA) Dataset, including for example, female subjects with drawn-on mustaches (using Kohl*eyeliner)

“[…] we consider the use of facial cosmetics for (a) gender spoofing where male subjects attempt to look like females and vice versa, and (b) age alteration where female subjects attempt to look younger or older than they actually are. While such transformations are known to impact human perception, their impact on computer vision algorithms has not been studied. Our findings suggest that facial cosmetics can potentially be used to confound automated gender and age estimation schemes.“

They note that:

“While a subject may not use makeup to intentionally defeat the system, it is not difficult to envision scenarios where a malicious user may employ commonly-used makeup to deceive the system. Future work will involve developing algorithms that are robust to changes introduced by facial makeup.“

Further resources: provided by Dr. Dantcheva, The YMU (YouTube Makeup): VMU (Virtual Makeup): and MIW (Makeup in the “wild”): photo datasets (registration required)

*Note: A renowned proponent of Kohl eyeliner.

Also see: Progress in Fake-Finger Thwarting

Ig Nobel day-after-Thanksgiving broadcast on Science Friday

November 25th, 2014

Spread the word, please! On Friday, November 28, the Science Friday radio program will broadcast its specially edited recording of the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. It’s SciFri’s 23rd annual broadcast (SciFri began this day-after-Thanksgiving tradition in 1992, the Ig Nobel ceremony’s second year).

Listen to it on a public radio station, if you’re near one, or on the Internet. (Science Friday is broadcast as two separate, hour-long programs. The Ig Nobel broadcast comprises the entire first hour.)

The photos below, by Mike Benveniste, show the paper airplane deluge, a tiny, traditional part of the epic ceremony:



BONUS: Science Friday again asked journalist Carmen Nobel (yes, that is her name) to visit the Ig Nobel after-party. Nobel’s writeup, on the Science Friday site, is called “Who’s Got the Biscotti? Mingling at the Ig Nobel Awards After-Party“.

BONUS: Download your own copies of IgBill, the printed program for the 2014 ceremony, and the 2014 ceremony poster.

BONUS: From SciFri archives, here’s last year (2013)’s Ig Nobel broadcast.

BONUS: The special Ig Nobel 2013 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research