STRANGEBUTTRUE- Mirror, mirror: Some pigs see through a looking glass

Q. What surprising barnyard animal passes the "mirror test," demonstrating both intelligence and self-awareness? –Babe

A. Elephants, dolphins, magpies, gray parrots, and some primates were already known to make sense of their mirror images and to show some degree of self-recognition, says Constance Holden in Science magazine. Recently, zoologist Donald Broom and colleagues at the University of Cambridge, UK, wondered if socially sophisticated pigs might also belong to the elite mirror group. So they set up a test leaving eight pigs with a mirror for five hours. 

"The pigs initially interpreted their image as another pig," the error most species make, says Broom. But then the pigs began to recognize the reflections of their own movements. 

Proof of true mirror-smarts came in the next test, where the researchers hid a bowl of food behind a barrier so that it could be seen only in the mirror. An overhead fan circulated the food's scent so the pigs could not simply use their nose.

"In less than 25 seconds, seven of the eight pigs correctly interpreted the image, turned away from the mirror and ran to the bowl," Broom notes. "The eighth pig flunked the test, looking behind the mirror for the food."

Q. In the war of wits and probabilities that is casino blackjack, ultra-shrewd players developed the strategy of card counting, as made famous by the film Rain Man. How does this work, and how are casinos today fighting back? –G. Clooney

A. It involves surreptitiously keeping track of which cards have been played, so as to gauge which ones are more likely to come up next, says New Scientist magazine in "Card Counters' Days Numbered." An abundance of low-value cards in the discard pile leaves more face cards in the deck, tipping the odds slightly in favor of the gambler. 

While not illegal, card-counting is anathema to casinos, which try to spot such players and may move them to a new table– forcing them to start afresh– or simply ban them.

Now a couple of University of Dundee, UK, researchers have developed an automated system to help casinos root out card counters more quickly: a stereo camera mounted above the table that records the cards as they're dealt, face up, and monitors their value. The camera also records the precise height of players' chip stacks and uses this to work out betting patterns. 

"By comparing the cards and gambling patterns, the computer can identify a card counter within 20 hands– even if the gambler starts off with a run of high bets to confuse the system," the article reports.

Q. What surprising tales does your hair have to tell? –A. Martin

Q. Tell us, Leonard Slye, what did you ride to work today– or to the ranch? And, yes, this is a multi-million-dollar question. –D. Evans

A. Quite a few actors have changed their names because they or their agent didn't like the one they already had, or the name didn't fit their on-screen characters, says David Crystal in Walking English: A Journey in Search of Language. For instance, would we be as scared of William Henry Pratt as of his horror film stage-name Boris Karloff? 

And certainly children would be more impressed by cowboy Roy Rogers than by cowboy Leonard Slye.

Men tend to avoid continuant sounds such as "m" and "l" when looking for new names and go in more for hard-sounding "plosive" consonants like "k" and "g." Thus, Maurice Micklewhite became Michael Caine, Marion Michael Morrison became John Wayne, Archibald Alexander Leach became Cary Grant, Julius Ullman became Douglas Fairbanks. 

Women tend to go the other way, with Dorothy Kaumeyer becoming Dorothy Lamour and Norma Jean Baker becoming Marilyn Monroe.

Actually, says Crystal, Roy Rogers is a bit weak as cowboy names go, lacking the plosives and short vowels found in Bob, Buck, Chuck, Clint, Luke, Tex, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson. 

"Roy doesn't quite explode from the lips in the same way," he says. "His horse, Trigger, actually does rather better."

~

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com.

#