We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,208,117-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This week’s entry: Quick hits
What it’s about: Lots of things! Over the years, we’ve come across Wikipedia articles that fascinated or amused to some degree, but were too short to write a full column about. So for the next few weeks, we’re going to shake up the format, and move through our 6,2098,117-part series a bit faster by tackling multiple subjects in brief. This week, some animal-themed pages.
Judas Goat: Just as Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, leading to his crucifixion, animal herders will often employ a Judas Goat, which is trained to lead other animals (usually not goats, often sheep or cattle) to slaughter (or simply into a pen or onto a truck), while the Judas Goat itself is spared. Wikipeida does not elaborate on why the other animals are willing to blindly follow a goat.
World War II airmen also used the phrase “Judas Goat” to denote the lead bomber in a formation. Formations were generally led by a worn-out bomber painted in a bright, high-contrast pattern to make it easily visible to the other planes. Other bomber pilots could follow this plane until the group was in formation, then the lead plane would drop out and return home (hence the use of worn-out aircraft, as their condition scarcely mattered for this mission).
Project Pigeon: While the Air Force was sending “goats” into the air, the Navy had its own, stranger project. The National Defense Research Committee gave $25,000 to behaviorist B.F. Skinner, in the hopes that he could develop a pigeon-guided bomb. The device had room for both a warhead and a “guidance section” where a pigeon would identify a target, “using their cognitive abilities.” Once the bird recognized the target, it would peck at a screen, steering the bomb so it wouldn’t drift off-target. Skinner complained, “our problem was no one would take us seriously,” although the Navy toyed with Project Pigeon on and off until 1953, when electronic guidance systems made pigeon-based targeting obsolete.
Digesting Duck: Not the “Disco Duck” sequel we were hoping for. The Canard Digérateur, (or Digesting Duck, in English) was one in a long tradition of 18th-century sham automatons. It’s creator, Jacques de Vaucanson, demonstrated how his duck could drink water, eat grain, metabolize them, and excrete them. In fact, the food was collected inside the duck, and pre-made feces made from dyed breadcrumb pellets would be dispensed from a separate compartment. Voltaire once remarked that, “without the voice of [operatic soprano Catherine-Nicole] le Maure and Vaucanson’s duck, you would have nothing to remind you of the glory of France.”
Animal Trial: The only legal trick Rudy Giuliani hasn’t tried in the past month. In medieval Europe, it wasn’t uncommon to put animals on trial for a variety of crimes, from a French pig that was tried and executed in 1266, to a donkey that was acquitted of bestiality charges in 1750, “due to witnesses to the animal’s virtue”—although the human accused alongside her was put to death.
Animal trials usually involved bestiality or murder, although some were driven purely by superstition. In 1474, a rooster in Basel, Switzerland was tried for, “the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg,” which the locals were convinced contained a cockatrice, conceived by the devil himself.
Rubber Duck Debugging: Computer programmers have long had a low opinion of the general public, with a longtime running joke that “user” is code for “idiot.” But there’s no bigger idiot than the computer itself, which has no way of recognizing typos, is unable to “get the gist” of a set of instructions, and must be given instructions in the simplest form possible. 1999 book The Pragmatic Programmer told the story of a coder who would carry around a rubber duck, so when they ran into problems with their code, they could explain the code line-by-line to the duck, thereby forcing them to review their own work and, ideally, identify problems. (As an additional benefit, the coder doesn’t have to bother an actual person while they work through their ideas). Programmers have widely adopted the idea, and explaining code to an inanimate object (or pet) has become common practice.
Further Down the Wormhole: The rubber duck is, of course, a small, rubber facsimile of an actual duck. The waterfowl have been domesticated, hunted, and anthropomorphized (you can debate the merits of Daffy, Donald, and Howard in the comments), and have served as mascots for the University of Oregon, Anaheim’s NHL franchise (as well as its cinematic namesake and subsequent televised counterparts), and the Long Island Ducks minor league baseball team.
And while baseball has long claimed to be America’s pastime, it’s played the world over, from the South Korean league that was the first to resume play after the COVID-19 shutdown, to the greatest-named sporting organization in history, Honkbal Hoofdklasse. We’ll look at the Dutch major league and more quick-hit topics next week.