In a glowing underpass in Central Park one night last month, a man and woman danced through a boxing routine. They skipped rope and sparred. He swung and she ducked. Echoing through the space, playing on a cellphone, was a piano composition by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. It had the feel of a dirge, possibly because Fidel Castro had died three nights earlier.

“I still don’t want to accept it,” the trainer, Brin-Jonathan Butler, said. “A year after from now, no one will believe it all ever existed.”

Mr. Butler, 37, is among his generation’s foremost boxing writers — the candidate pool for his anachronistic profession is admittedly small — and his book, “The Domino Diaries,” an immersion into Cuba’s boxing culture, positions him in a line of literary acolytes of Ernest Hemingway. But being a boxing writer now is a less viable career path than it was in Hemingway’s day, and the exotic Havana he visited is becoming a popular Instagram destination for JetBlue passengers.

So Mr. Butler makes ends meet by teaching boxing to a dozen or so clients at $90 a session in Central Park, no matter the weather. “When I came to New York, someone told me ‘You’re either rich or you have a second job,’” he said.

His book, which Picador published last year and recently came out in paperback, recounts his trip to Cuba in 2000 with little more than boxing gloves, a wad of cash and a vague plan to research Cuban boxing. He ended up living there on and off for a decade. His small apartment in an East Harlem walk-up is filled with tattered pictures of Che Guevara and Castro. “Some people have a feeling home is not where you were born,” he said. “I felt I’d come home when I went to Havana.”

For boxing fans, Cuba holds an outsize mystique. Since Castro took power in 1959, the island has won more Olympic gold medals in boxing than any other country, but its fighters have for the most part resisted the temptation to defect to the United States, turning down multimillion-dollar offers in apparent loyalty to the revolution. Mr. Butler found the paradox worth exploring, and his book argues that the sport is as entwined with Cuba’s narrative of defiance toward America as much as anything else.

His adventures over the years were plentiful. He interviewed Cuba’s most decorated boxers, finding them living in poverty: Several had sold their gold medals because they needed the money; another agreed to train him for $6 a day, and another decreed he chug a glass of vodka as a test of character. The book chronicles Mr. Butler’s fling with one of Castro’s granddaughters and the time he bet his life savings on a fight (he won). He also retraced Hemingway’s footsteps, talking his way into his literary idol’s home and traveling to a small fishing town to find the old man who inspired “The Old Man and the Sea,” who was then 102.

These days, you can find him in Central Park. Another tune started to play as his student agonized through push-ups. “You’d see these boxers dominate at the Olympics, and then they’d just disappear,” he said. “They were fighting for something more important than money. I had to go find out why.”

Mr. Butler was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1979 and began boxing, he said, for the same reason everyone starts boxing. “When you get into the ring, you think everyone’s there for a different reason than you, but that’s not true,” he said. “It’s all the same reason: to reclaim respect.” In his case, classmates violently ambushed him on an empty field when he was 11. He retreated into reading Dostoyevsky and punching heavy bags.

He arrived in Havana when he was 20, around the time of the Elián González conflict. His book started writing itself on the plane. An antique bookseller seated beside him claimed to know the location of Gregorio Fuentes, the fisherman who inspired Hemingway; flight attendants had cut off the bookseller from more alcohol, however, and he agreed to help only if Mr. Butler ordered him more whiskey.

Soon after settling into Havana, Mr. Butler found himself knocking on a door in the quiet fishing village of Cojímar, east of the capital. He spent only 20 minutes with the wrinkled man who emerged. “He said that after Hemingway committed suicide, he never fished again,” Mr. Butler recalled. “He told me, ‘He was my friend, and I never wanted to fish again after that.’” Mr. Fuentes died two years later.

John Hemingway, one of Ernest Hemingway’s grandsons, became a fan of Mr. Butler’s writing and started a correspondence with him. “I really liked a piece he wrote about bullfighting in Spain, so I wrote him a letter,” Mr. Hemingway said in a phone call. “Brin looks at the corrida as the art form we consider it to be. We almost went to see José Tomás in Mexico City together. He’s the best bullfighter in the world right now. Anyone who gets the chance to see him before he retires or gets killed is in for a treat.”

But Mr. Butler spent most of his time in Cuba, living in a crumbling apartment on Neptune Street, exploring the thesis of his book. “Heroes weren’t for sale,” he wrote. “But how long could that last? How long could anyone resist not cashing in? And if no price was acceptable to sell out, what was the cost of that stance?”

He enlisted at Rafael Trejo, a historic boxing gym in the city’s old red-light district, where wrenches were banged against fire extinguishers as bells. “These old women guarded the door,” he said. “They reminded me of the sisters from ‘Macbeth.’ You had to pay them $2 to enter, but then you trained outside under the stars and punched tires instead of punching bags.”

Everything Mr. Butler thought he knew about boxing got turned backward: At government-funded stadium matches, there were no cameras, no concession stands, no corporate sponsorships, no ticket scalpers and no V.I.P. seating. There was also no air-conditioning.

“Without the incentive of money, I watched people fight harder than anywhere else I’d ever seen,” he wrote. “But I knew full well that most Cuban champions were so desperate for money that many had sold off all their Olympic medals, and even uniforms, to the highest tourist bidder. That part of the Cuban sports legacy was omitted from their tales.”

He found his first Olympian, Héctor Vinent, shortly after arriving. Mr. Vinent, who won Olympic gold medals in the 1990s, started training Mr. Butler at the gym for $6 a session. Mr. Butler then found Teófilo Stevenson, whom the BBC once described as Cuba’s “most famous figure after Fidel Castro.” Mr. Stevenson became a Cuban legend after winning three consecutive Olympic gold medals (’72, ’76, ’80) and turning down $5 million to fight Muhammad Ali in the United States. Tall and strapping, his refusal to defect made him a potent symbol of the revolution. When Mr. Butler found him, he was living in penury at 59, charging $130 to be interviewed on camera at his Havana home. He died a year later.

“He turned down millions to leave, and here was begging for $130 to talk about turning down millions,” Mr. Butler said. “He was the perfect canary in the coal mine because his situation reflected the health of the revolution.”

The cork board above Mr. Butler’s writing desk in Harlem. Credit Hilary Swift for The New York Times
The former champion was self-conscious of his living conditions, Mr. Butler said, and initially requested that the camera focus on a wall. He also made the unusual request, as it was 9 in the morning, that Mr. Butler consume a tall glass of vodka to establish trust. The conversation is believed to be the boxer’s last videotaped interview.

Mr. Butler also encountered Félix Savón and Guillermo Rigondeaux. Mr. Savón was similarly elevated to heroic status after winning three gold medals and refusing multimillion-dollar offers to fight Mike Tyson. He is said to have told the boxing promoter Don King, “What do I need $10 million for when I have 11 million Cubans behind me?” And when promoters came to his Havana home, Mr. Butler reported in his book, Mr. Savón’s wife boasted, “Félix is more revolutionary than Fidel.”

Mr. Rigondeaux, on the other hand, broke ranks while Mr. Butler was there, defecting to the United States in 2009. Indications of his rebelliousness, perhaps, were apparent when Mr. Butler encountered him: He claimed he had melted his two Olympic gold medals to wear as grills on his teeth. The Ring magazine now ranks him the No. 1 junior featherweight in the world.

Of course, Mr. Butler didn’t devote his every waking moment to studying Cuba’s sports system. At a New Year’s Eve party in 2006, he met one of Castro’s granddaughters. “She asked me for a cigarette,” he said. “She seemed impressed I didn’t care who she was.” In an unusual gesture of flirtation, she recited Castro’s personal phone number. A retelling of what followed was published on the sports website Deadspin with the cheeky headline: “The Time I Went to Havana and Hooked Up With Castro’s Granddaughter.”

He concluded his travels the same day Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. Even as he headed to the airport, he said, the nation’s idiosyncrasies followed him. “No one in Cuba knew that he had been killed yet,” he said. “I only found out because I ran into a New Yorker who was yelling to everybody, ‘We got him!’ His hotel had a TV with an American news channel.”

In New York, a short-lived marriage ended in divorce. A documentary he made about his adventures left him $50,000 in debt (he has struggled to get the film released), and though “The Domino Diaries” received good reviews, it sold poorly. But Mr. Butler didn’t linger on the financial outcome of his travels. “J. D. Salinger said, ‘Write the book you want to read,’ and I got to do that,” he said. “Writing about Cuba was an honor.”

He prepped boxing gear at his East Harlem apartment before a lesson in Central Park last month. His library is cluttered with books by sportswriters like Jimmy Cannon and A. J. Liebling. A “private property” sign he said he pried off a tree from Salinger’s property hangs on a wall. The ticket to a fight at the Kid Chocolate Arena in Havana is pinned above his desk alongside a picture of a shirtless Castro doing a pull-up. His cat, Fidel, stared down from atop a pile of books.

Mr. Butler is aware that he writes about a sport that increasingly exists on the margins. “Fighters complain to me about boxing writers now,” he said. “‘You guys aren’t as good as you used to be.’ And I say, ‘There’s not the money there used to be.’” He continued, “‘I’m on Medicaid, I’m living below the poverty line, and I’m also in Vegas at the ring writing about your fight.’”

And in Manhattan, boxing is a lonely sport to love when even many of those he teaches cannot name the current heavyweight champion of the world. He is something of a holdout in that sense and has become a walking repository of the city’s boxiana.

The daughter of one the sport’s best writers, Mark Kram, is a student of Mr. Butler’s; his coffee companion and confidant, Thomas Hauser, is Ali’s official biographer; and he often passes Saturday evenings in the boxing-memorabilia-filled apartment of a widow in Hamilton Heights who tapes practically every televised fight. (“I can’t believe we paid $30 for that miserable pay-per-view out of Puerto Rico,” she lamented as she and Mr. Butler watched the recent Manny Pacquiao fight over wine and her homemade tacos.)

Mr. Butler calls his lessons “guerrilla style.” Of the trend of boxing as fitness for “Wall Street guys,” he said: “They do it to feel something. Anything. Boxing gyms are parks for rich people now. Black fighters are exotic as trainers to them. Gyms aren’t the lifelines they were to kids anymore.”

The gig is necessary to support his craft, he said, though he has written lengthy literary articles for publications like the The Paris Review, Esquire and ESPN the Magazine, and has been mentioned in the Best American Sports Writing anthology three times. He is working on a book about chess for Simon & Schuster. “I wrote well over a million words before I was paid for one,” he said.

“I’m having to struggle and grind like the fighters I write about,” he concluded. “That makes it easy for me to sympathize with them.”

But Mr. Butler tends to stay away from doom and gloom, focusing on the tale at hand. Indeed, he brightened at the park when he thought about Castro’s love for boxing. “He was a fanatic,” he said, starting to wind up another story: Félix Savón was battling the American boxer Shannon Briggs at the 1991 Pan-American Games. Castro was watching in the audience.

“Cuba is absolutely demolishing the U.S. in the ring,” Mr. Butler said. “Everyone in the stadium starts doing the wave and Fidel jumps up with them. Fidel Castro started doing the wave.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 18, 2016, on Page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Trials of a Boxing Romantic.

By Jason Bittel

Do baboons fart? What about salamanders? Millipedes?

These questions sound like the sort Bart Simpson might have asked to derail science class. But real-life scientists are now taking to Twitter to provide answers. So far, they’ve created a hashtag — #DoesItFart — and a Google Spreadsheet that details the flatulence habits of more than 60 animals.

So, which animals cut the proverbial cheese? Tons, it turns out. Bats do, according to David Bennett, a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London. And the bigger they are, the harder they honk.

Rats, zebras and bearded dragons are also among Those Creatures That Fart. Birds, on the other hand, do not seem to have a biological need for passing gas, but they could let one rip, theoretically. Marine invertebrates such as oysters, mussels and crabs? Alas, they are whoopee-impaired.

The science of farts is not just about potty humor, by the way. Cattle gas, for example, is a significant contributor to atmospheric methane that contributes to climate change. And fauna flatulence is also a hot topic among certain crowds — ones scientists want to engage.

“Does it fart?” is one of most frequent questions zoologists receive from kids, said Dani Rabaiotti of the Zoological Society of London. In fact, the whole #DoesItFart adventure started when her teenage brother asked if snakes ever experience flatulence. Rabaiotti knew from her own work that the wild dogs of Africa definitely fart, as do the extremely gassy seals that reside on the Atlantic island of South Georgia. But she wasn’t sure about snakes, so she consulted snake expert David Steen.

The short answer is yes, says Steen, a wildlife ecologist at Auburn University. “Snakes sometimes discharge feces and musk as a defensive strategy, and this is often accompanied by what I would consider classic fart noises,” he said.

Steen said this is far from the first time he’s fielded this question, as it seems to be a favorite of the preteen crowd.

“I don’t know if animal flatulence questions can serve as a significant gateway to a greater appreciation of biodiversity, but it is always fun to see what captures people’s attention,” he said. “It is at least an opportunity to engage with a larger audience and bring new folks into the conversation.”

And if engagement is the goal — or at least a byproduct — does it really matter what the topic is? “Just because it’s flatulence doesn’t mean it’s inherently silly,” said Adriana Lowe, a researcher of biological anthropology at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. “The diets and digestive systems of animals are an important and fascinating field of study, and gas is just a part of that.”

Lowe studies chimpanzees in Uganda’s Budongo forest, animals whose gas appears to vary with their diet. “Fruit is tootier than leaves, and figs seem to be the worst offenders,” she said. On occasion, these bodily functions have even aided in her research. “Several times I have been with one or two chimps and not been aware others are nearby until the farts start,” says Lowe. “Some of them have that very long, air-being-released-from-a-balloon quality, which is handy because it gives you a bit longer to pinpoint where it’s coming from.”

George Dore, a librarian in Orlando, Florida was suspended from his position as branch manager after an investigation revealed that he had created a fake identity to borrow library books that were falling out of fashion. His creation, the fictional Charles Finley, was given a career (ballplayer), a drivers license number, an address and a voracious appetite for reading. He was also endowed with a wide-ranging taste in literature.

Basically, Dore was gaming the system. Finley’s reading marathon was engineered to inflate the library’s data, tricking its algorithm by creating the appearance of popularity for books that were not being borrowed much. (Culling books that have not been read for a long time is a common practice at libraries.)

Finley borrowed more than 2,300 books over the course of 2015, increasing circulation at East Lake County branch by 3.9%. He was also a super-fast reader, checking books in and out within an hour. Nine months into Finley’s reading marathon, his speed-reading led to suspicion and an investigation, which began in November 2015.

The notion of rebel bibliophiles breaking the law to save books is undeniably charming to book lovers. But actually, the librarian is alleged to have committed fraud and authorities in Florida are not impressed. The inspector general’s report on Dore states that creation of a fake library card “amounts to the creation of a false public record.”

Dore was recommended for termination and put on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. He says he was just trying to save the library time and money, as books that are not borrowed are deemed irrelevant by the software that the local library system uses to track circulation and taken off the shelves. Then they are often repurchased again later.

But there are several twists to this story. Circulation can influence annual funding. Nine city-run libraries in Lake country receive nearly $1 million based on circulation. Chuck Finley’s prolific reading not only made East Lake Country library books seem more popular, it cast doubt on whether other libraries were involved in similar book-checkout schemes. A county-wide audit is underway

Jeff Cole, director of the Lake County Public Resources Department that oversees library services, wouldn’t comment on whether other libraries were involved but he told the Orlando Sentinel, “I think we’d have to evaluate it if the [allegations] bear out.”

Meanwhile, Dore’s library was not among the nine receiving money from the County so funding was not an incentive. He says his aim was actually to save the library money in the long run, by not having to repurchase books which often go in and out of fashion with readers. One of Finley’s choices, for instance, was John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.”

If Dore is to be believed, he’s not the only renegade librarian fighting the algorithms. His colleague, library assistant Scott Amey, who helped dream up their fictional reader was reprimanded for being part of the scheme. And Dore told investigators that gaming the system with “dummy cards” is common, noting, “There was a lot of bad blood between the libraries because of money wars.”

A librarian in Florida went rogue to save 2,361 books from an algorithm

Thanks to Tracy Lindley for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

A new deep-space study by NASA shows the vast void beyond our home is dotted not only with countless galaxies and stars, but also a stunning number of supermassive black holes.

Using data collected over 80 days of observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory spacecraft, the agency released an image that shows the largest concentration of black holes ever seen. According to scientists, the density as viewed from Earth would be equivalent to about 5,000 objects that would fit into the area of the sky covered by the full moon.

“With this one amazing picture, we can explore the earliest days of black holes in the Universe and see how they change over billions of years,” study leader Niel Brandt of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, said in a statement.

The image above shows black holes emitting x-ray energy at a variety of intensities. Red indicates low energy, medium is green, and the highest-energy x-rays observed by Chandra are blue. About 70 percent of the objects in the image are supermassive black holes, with masses estimated to range anywhere from 100,000 to 10 billion times the mass of our sun. Many date back billions of years, forming just after the Big Bang.

While invisible to the naked eye, black holes emit x-rays due to captured matter heating up as it spins faster and faster towards the object’s all-consuming center or event horizon.


Centrifuges, which separate materials in fluids by spinning them at great speed, are found in medical labs worldwide. But a good one could run you a couple grand and, of course, requires electricity — neither of which are things you’re likely to find in a rural clinic in an impoverished country. Stanford researchers have created an alternative that costs just a few cents and runs without a charge, based on a children’s toy with surprising qualities.

It’s a whirligig, and it’s a simple construction: a small disc, probably a button, through which you thread a piece of string twice. By pulling on the threads carefully, you can make the button spin quite quickly. You may very well have made one as a child — as Saad Bhamla, one of the creators of what they call the Paperfuge, did.

“This is a toy that I used to play with as a kid,” he says in a video produced by the university. “The puzzle was that I didn’t know how fast it would spin. So I got intrigued and I set this up on a high-speed camera — and I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

The whirligig was spinning at around 10,000 to 15,000 RPMs, right in centrifuge territory. The team then spent some time intensely studying the motion of the whirligig, which turns out to be a fascinatingly efficient way to turn linear motion into rotational motion.

The team then put together a custom whirligig with a disc of paper into which can be slotted a vial with blood or other fluids. By pulling on the strings (they added handles for ease of use) for a minute or two, less than a dollar’s worth of materials does a superb job of replicating the work of a device that costs thousands of times more. They’ve achieved RPMs of 125,000 and 30,000 G-forces.

“There is a value in this whimsical nature of searching for solutions, because it really forces us outside our own sets of constraints about what a product should actually look like,” said Manu Prakash.
They’ve just returned from field tests in Madagascar, where they tested the device and checked in with local caregivers. Up next will be more formal clinical trials of the Paperfuge’s already demonstrated ability to separate malaria parasites from blood for analysis.

If the concept of a simple, cheap alternative to existing lab equipment rings a bell, you might be remembering Foldscope, another project from Prakash. It put a powerful microscope in flatpack form for a few bucks, enabling scientific or medical examination at very low budgets.

The details of the Paperfuge and its development by Bhamla, Prakash and the rest of the team can be found in the most recent issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering:

This 20-cent whirligig toy can replace a $1,000 medical centrifuge

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.










Thanks to Tracy Lindley for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

by Tom Simonite

Each of these trucks is the size of a small two-story house. None has a driver or anyone else on board.

Mining company Rio Tinto has 73 of these titans hauling iron ore 24 hours a day at four mines in Australia’s Mars-red northwest corner. At this one, known as West Angelas, the vehicles work alongside robotic rock drilling rigs. The company is also upgrading the locomotives that haul ore hundreds of miles to port—the upgrades will allow the trains to drive themselves, and be loaded and unloaded automatically.

Rio Tinto intends its automated operations in Australia to preview a more efficient future for all of its mines—one that will also reduce the need for human miners. The rising capabilities and falling costs of robotics technology are allowing mining and oil companies to reimagine the dirty, dangerous business of getting resources out of the ground.

BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, is also deploying driverless trucks and drills on iron ore mines in Australia. Suncor, Canada’s largest oil company, has begun testing driverless trucks on oil sands fields in Alberta.

“In the last couple of years we can just do so much more in terms of the sophistication of automation,” says Herman Herman, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. The center helped Caterpillar develop its autonomous haul truck. Mining company Fortescue Metals Group is putting them to work in its own iron ore mines. Herman says the technology can be deployed sooner for mining than other applications, such as transportation on public roads. “It’s easier to deploy because these environments are already highly regulated,” he says.

Rio Tinto uses driverless trucks provided by Japan’s Komatsu. They find their way around using precision GPS and look out for obstacles using radar and laser sensors.

Rob Atkinson, who leads productivity efforts at Rio Tinto, says the fleet and other automation projects are already paying off. The company’s driverless trucks have proven to be roughly 15 percent cheaper to run than vehicles with humans behind the wheel, says Atkinson—a significant saving since haulage is by far a mine’s largest operational cost. “We’re going to continue as aggressively as possible down this path,” he says.

Trucks that drive themselves can spend more time working because software doesn’t need to stop for shift changes or bathroom breaks. They are also more predictable in how they do things like pull up for loading. “All those places where you could lose a few seconds or minutes by not being consistent add up,” says Atkinson. They also improve safety, he says.

The driverless locomotives, due to be tested extensively next year and fully deployed by 2018, are expected to bring similar benefits. Atkinson also anticipates savings on train maintenance, because software can be more predictable and gentle than any human in how it uses brakes and other controls. Diggers and bulldozers could be next to be automated.

Herman at CMU expects all large mining companies to widen their use of automation in the coming years as robotics continues to improve. The recent, sizeable investments by auto and tech companies in driverless cars will help accelerate improvements in the price and performance of the sensors, software, and other technologies needed.

Herman says many mining companies are well placed to expand automation rapidly, because they have already invested in centralized control systems that use software to coördinate and monitor their equipment. Rio Tinto, for example, gave the job of overseeing its autonomous trucks to staff at the company’s control center in Perth, 750 miles to the south. The center already plans train movements and in the future will shift from sending orders to people to directing driverless locomotives.

Atkinson of Rio Tinto acknowledges that just like earlier technologies that boosted efficiency, those changes will tend to reduce staffing levels, even if some new jobs are created servicing and managing autonomous machines. “It’s something that we’ve got to carefully manage, but it’s a reality of modern day life,” he says. “We will remain a very significant employer.”

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.