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Spies Like Us: Homing Pigeons

So I'm trying something new this week: a theme! Every day this week I'll be writing about something that has to do with spying, spies, Harriet the Spy, etc. Today, we'll be looking at homing pigeons.

The grey birds have played an important part in intelligence work since the beginnings of espionage. While carrying vital secrets, the birds can soar high over enemy lines. In Roman times, Caesar used them to send messages during his campaigns. Ever since, spies have valued the pigeon's speed and its ability to return home in almost any weather. When we think of homing pigeons, we, of course, think of WWI when more than 500,000 birds carried messages back and forth. Reconnaissance pigeons even carried tiny cameras in the sky to take pics of enemy fortifications.

In WWII, spies used pigeons to guide bombers to the launch sites of the German V1 "flying bombs." Meanwhile, soldiers on the front line were ordered to shoot any bird even before they saw the whites of their eyes. Pigeons could carry only light loads, so the messages had to be really small or else reduced to a microdot, which would later be enlarged.

No one really understands completely how the birds are able to make their way back "home." Most researchers believe that they have an inner compass mechanism that relies on the sun. It's also thought that the birds can detect the Earth's magnetic field. Whatever the reason, the homing pigeon is probably (hopefully) a thing of the past. My favorite story about these spies is the one about a specific bird named Cher Ami, who was awarded the French Croix de guerre for his heroic service in delivering 12 important messages during WWI, despite having been very badly injured. Now that's what I call giving "flipping the enemy the bird!"

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holidays
40 Years Later: Watch The Johnny Cash Christmas Show
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over the course of his career, Johnny Cash made a series of Christmas TV specials and recorded a string of Christmas records. In this 1977 TV performance, Cash is in great form. He brings special guests Roy Clark, June Carter Cash, The Carter Family, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison ("Pretty Woman" starts around 23:50), Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers. Tune in for Christmas as we celebrated it 40 years ago—with gigantic shirt collars, wavy hair, and bow ties. So many bow ties.

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Pop Culture
An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]

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