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The Weekend Links

"¢ Slate recently reported on the growing tabloid-nature of news websites. (Two examples: "Man Arrested After Cat Finds Child Porn Stash" and "Human Tongue Accidentally Served Up in Hospital." ) If you find these kinds of stories too foolish for the front page, this site compiles news from various media outlets and allows readers to vote on whether or not an item deserves "breaking news" status (much thanks to Paul!)

"¢ Reader Phill points out that while you may not have any trouble finding a sundry of strange state laws, you don't often see them being enforced.

"¢ The Naked Cowboy is suing Mars Inc. for trademark infringement. He may even have a case. But as you'll hear in this 2005 interview with YesButNoButYes, he's a strange, strange dude. The Naked Cowgirl is also involved.

"¢ My co-worker is obsessed with The Dark Knight, and has watched every bootlegged version of any trailer he can get his hands on. Even he was impressed by this trailer for the movie done with Legos.

"¢ If only the Oxford English Dictionary (or the Urban Dictionary, for that matter) had celebrity pictures to match up with the definitions. Luckily, this site does! Learn new words alongside celebrity gossip. Now that's hot. (Warning: Probably not the place you want your kid to turn to build his or her vocabulary.)

"¢ Two great sets of links from fellow Atlanta resident Jan. The first: just when you thought things couldn't get any more ridiculous ... insured celebrity body parts! If that's not enough for you on this apparently hot topic, read more about it here.

"¢ Secondly, a great animation experiment: Animator versus Animation. Being caught in a desktop application ALMOST looks like fun ...

"¢ Oh satire ... thy ways are wily. Check out this site and see a parody of lame video sites that encourage completely corporate-backed tripe submissions (the Roomba one is especially disappointing, as it's meant to be, by at first reminding us splendidly of Battle Bots before proving itself utterly useless). For actual Battle Bot action, go here.

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"¢ Flossy reader Meg snapped a great photo of fantasy, science-fiction and children's author Terry Pratchett's work being displayed unabashedly in the non-fiction section. It would make my year to see Harry Potter alongside it ... would that it were ....

"¢ I don't know about you guys, but I'm always curious about special effects. Here's someone who offers tips on the art of the Decapitation Effect, to dazzle (and possibly horrify) your friends.

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"¢ Here's a list of 10 Star Wars toys that unintentionally look like celebrities. Christian Bale as Slave Leia? See it to believe it! (John Kerry as General Rieekan is the most dead-on, in my opinion.)

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"¢ Shameless plug of the week! Your Correspondent interviewed Ryan Reynolds for Creative Loafing last week about politics, comic books, and his new movie. Here's a link to the podcast (which is underneath the picture from the film).

Much love to everyone who sent in links this week ... please keep it up! Remember, pictures and shameless personal plugs are always welcome. Just send your stuff to flossylinks@gmail.com to see your name up in lights (well ... a computer screen). Have a great weekend!

[Last Weekend's Links]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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