The Robotic Waggle Dance Phenomenon

I’m reading You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall by Colin Ellard.  It’s a fascinating study of how humans and other animals navigate, from simple tasks like moving across a crowded room to complex feats of worldwide and celestial navigation.

One section describes Karl von Frisch’s research with bees in the 1920s.  After finding food, bees return to the hive and perform a “waggle dance,” which von Frisch deduced was a way of communicating the food’s location to other bees.  Perhaps understandably, some skepticism met this claim.  Ellard writes:

[O]nly very recently have advances in technology enabled researchers to provide what seems like ironclad evidence for the key role of the waggle dance in bee navigation.

In 1989 a team of researchers at the University of Odense in Denmark built a dancing robotic bee.

I love my chosen profession, but I do sometimes think meetings would be more fulfilling if, when someone disagreed with my point of view, I could say something like, “You’re wrong, as I shall now demonstrate with this dancing robotic bee.”

Citizen Soldiers

I recently finished Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers about World War II.  It’s an interesting read throughout, but my absolute favorite story comes from the introduction.  Ambrose describes the Lieutenant Waverly Wray of Company D, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, commanded by Colonel Ben Vandervoot.

Lt. Waverly Wray

Lt. Waverly Wray

After jumping into Normandy, he began crawling through the sunken lanes to reconnoiter the German positions surrounding them.  He came upon a group of eight German officers surrounding a radio — officers who turned out to be leading the counterattack.  Wray jumped through the hedgerow and ordered them to surrender.

Seven instinctively raised their hands.  The eighth tried to pull a pistol from his holster; Wray shot him instantly, between the eyes.  Two Germans in a slit trench 100 meters to Wray’s rear fired bursts from their Schmeisser machine pistols at him.  Bullets cut through his jacket; one cut off half of his right ear.

Wray dropped to his knee and began shooting the other seven officers, one at a time as they attempted to run away.  When he had used up his clip, Wray jumped into a ditch, put another clip into his M-1, and dropped the German soldiers with the Schmeissers with one shot each.

Wray made his way back to the company area to report on what he had seen. At the command post he came in with blood down his jacket, a big chunk of his ear gone, holes in his clothing.  “Who’s got more grenades?” he demanded.

Vandervoot later recalled that when he saw the blood on Wray’s jacket and the missing half-ear, he had remarked, “They’ve been getting kind of close to you, haven’t they Waverly?”

With just a trace of a grin, Wray had replied, “Not as close as I’ve been getting to them, Sir.”

Ambrose’s Band of Brothers (on which the HBO series of the same name was based) is more compelling overall, but because it tells the story primarily of a single company of paratroopers it necessarily offers a limited view of the war.  Citizen Soldiers gives a more complete overview, but naturally at the cost of some finer detail.  Clearly the only reasonable plan is to read both.

The picture of Lt. Wray comes from The U.S. Airborne During WW II, which came up in a Google search for Wray’s name, and which I now must absolutely explore in greater depth.


I’m reading an absolutely fascinating book called Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, analyzing what makes traffic happen, and what’s happening in our brains when we try to drive.

You may be wondering how it is that humans can even do things like drive cars or fly planes, moving at speeds well beyond that ever experienced in our evolutionary history.  … The short answer is that we cheat.  We make the driving environment as simple as possible, with smooth, wide roads marked by enormous signs and white lines that are purposely placed far apart to trick us into thinking we are not moving as fast as we are.  It is a toddler’s view of the world, a landscape of outsized, brightly colored objects and flashing lights, with harnesses and safety barriers that protect us as we exceed our own underdeveloped capabilities.

It’s got bits of civil engineering, bits of psychology, and reams of experimental evidence that all make me wish I were back on a highway just to see it all in action.

I guess I’ll just settle for reading a book about mass transit while sitting comfortably on the train in the morning.


I’ve chosen my favorite story from Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day (having had to stop reading partway through and then pick it up again).

At Omaha Beach, the Navy prefaced the invasion with an extensive bombardment of Nazi fortifications along the shore, but then moved their fire to inland targets as Allied infantry began landing.  Since the Navy couldn’t possibly tell where Allied troops had already made advances, they relied on forward observers on the beach to radio the positions of specific targets.

The plan failed when many of the forward observers were killed, and those who weren’t found that radios had been dropped or destroyed when coming ashore.  This left the Navy out of contact with the infantry, and thus powerless to help the men getting slaughtered on the beach.

Frustrated, Destroyer captains pushed their ships closer and closer to the shore, at great risk of running aground, hoping to find some way of spotting targets on the beach themselves.

Comdr. Robert Beer on Carmick went in to within 900 meters of the beach, where he could keep up a visual communciation of a sort with the troops ashore. When he saw a tank fire a single shot at a certain point on the bluff, Beer blasted the same spot.  When he could see riflemen firing at a target, he laid into it with his 5-inch shells.

Frankford fired away from shoal water 800 meters off the beach.  Gunnery Officer Keeler recalled: “A tank sitting at the water’s edge with a broken track fired at something on the hill.  We immediately followed up with a 5-inch salvo.  The tank gunner flipped open his hatch, looked around at us, waved, dropped back in the tank, and fired at another target.  For the next few minutes he was our fire-control party.  Our range-finder optics could examine the spots where his shells hit.

A bit later, McCook had the perhaps unique experience of forcing German troops to surrender.  As [Lt. Comdr. Ralph] “Rebel” Ramey  was firing at a cliff position, German soldiers appeared waving a white flag and attempting to signal the ship by semaphore and flashing lights. … Ramey had his men signal to the Germans that they should come down the bluff and surrender themselves.  They understood and did, coming down single file with hands up to turn themselves over to GIs on the beach.


In 1968, William Steig published a book titled C D B! Like the “txt spk” of today, its entire text consists of individual letters and numbers that, when pronounced, sound like words.  For example:

C D B!  D B S A B-Z B.  O, S N-D!

This, as is obvious to anyone who’s ever deciphered a YouTube comment, is meant to read:

See the bee.  The bee is a busy bee.  Oh, yes indeed!

This seems less novel in 2009 than it must have in 1968, but it’s no less remarkable.

(Credit for this find goes to the Harvard Pops, who accompanied the book’s images and cryptic phrases with maestro Allen Feinstein’s own composition.)