Is Pluto a planet? The Spanish government’s tax portal says it is

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Josie Ford

Guess the planet

Feedback has always been mildly sceptical of, not to say narked by, requests to click on pictures of bicycles and fire hydrants to prove we aren’t a robot. True, no one has ever seen an algorithm riding a bicycle, but when the shape-shifting terminator bots finally arrive, they will probably take on innocent forms such as fire hydrants. It might take one to know one.

At least they won’t be able to get social security benefits in Spain. Genís Cardona from Solsona, Catalonia, reports accessing an official Spanish government portal for tax and welfare services and being requested to answer a quiz question: “Which of the following is a planet? A. Banana; B. Pluto; C. Scissors; D. Bee”.

A decade and a half on, Pluto’s controversial demotion from planethood clearly still rankles in some quarters. Like Genís, we appreciate the spirit of this open defiance of the International Astronomical Union’s edicts. Come to think of it, though, does anyone know which side the robots are on?

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Flipping bird

Our mention of “New Zealand’s most annoying tūī” (1 January) prompts Matthew Arozian to write from Baltimore, Maryland, with the heartfelt insight that the Carolina wren – Thryothorus ludovicianus, we savour on our tongue – weighs approximately 18 to 22 grams yet produces calls that can reach 110 decibels.

He asks us to imagine the cacophonous circus of a brood being taught to fly just outside his home-office window. We close our eyes, rapidly open them again and sympathise. Mind you, the transcendent benefits for our well-being of being within and bonded to nature are well known, Matthew. Call it home delivery.

Polly the pickled parrot

Staying with our feathered frenemies, our Australasia correspondent Alice Klein provides an addendum to our item last week about alcoholic overindulgence in the animal kingdom with the story of Broome Veterinary Hospital in Kimberley, Australia, which ABC News reported in December was treating a spate of red-winged parrots apparently boozed up on fermenting mangoes.

As Michael Considine, a biologist at the University of Western Australia, pointed out, volatile compounds released by the fermentation of fallen mangoes attract the birds, encouraging them to propagate the plant’s seeds – even if, by whumping into windows, falling over and generally sitting around dazed and vulnerable to predators, the parrots’ own chances of survival aren’t exactly enhanced.

Evolution in the raw, and a reminder to the rest of us not to drink and fly.

Can’t find the words

The Guardian reports rage and distress at copycat app versions of the online word game Wordle that assault the original’s innocent ethos of freedom from both charge and data hoovering. For those who haven’t yet fallen down this rabbit hole, Wordle confronts its players with a blank series of five letters to fill in, giving them six attempts to arrive at the actual five-letter word that the computer was thinking of, once told whether their letters appear in that word.

As Fields medal-winning mathematician Tim Gowers has highlighted, this gamifies entropy in an information theory sense, as the information required to specify a given object. This makes it Solid Science, but Feedback has now fallen down the rabbit hole at the bottom of the rabbit hole with Sweardle, a game that does the same thing with a more limited set of four-letter words, and Letterle, which gives a maximum of 26 goes to guess a single letter. We know all of this is contributing to the heat death of the universe, but we can’t stop now.

Tin lid on it

Of which, many thanks to those of you who wrote in varying degrees of delight and distress over our fiendishly difficult holiday word search featuring the names of all the known fundamental particles, the chemical elements and the amino acids that make up life’s proteins (18/25 December 2021, p 43). We are treating it as a slow-burning abvent calendar – a term we just invented, and we expect letters about – finding one a day as Christmas recedes.

For those of you whose year is off to an even slower start, we forward Bob Ladd’s query, which we take as expressing both delight and distress, asking how you might design the same word search with no accidental instances of TIN – apart from those required in TIN and ASTATINE, say. That sounds like a case for the entropy theory of information to us. And in response to Mike Clark’s query, we don’t know whether it is SULPHUR or SULFUR yet, either.

Whale units

Still in holiday mode, Harry Lagoussis writes from Athens concerning our statement that a lump of ambergris, or ancient whale poo, the size of a human head “could fetch you £50,000 or more” (18/25 December 2021, p 56).

“Does that make the ‘shithead’ the standard unit of ambergris volume? And, perhaps more importantly, if 1 shithead = £50,000, does that justify the use of the selfsame unit when discussing the global financial system, celebrity net worth etc.?” he asks. At a punt, it’s no and no, but we will ask our ever-vigilant subeditors. And with that, we tiptoe out of the room.

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