Most-read Wikipedia articles: French holly, Vietnamese sex positions and Japanese pornstars

A glimpse into national psyches.

Via Chris Applegate on Twitter, here's a list of the most viewed articles on each of the 35 most active versions of Wikipedia in 2012.

It's a curious collection of pieces: some boring, some weird, and most just vain. Let's look at the fun stuff first.

The weird

Japanese: AV女優一覧, a list of lists of "adult video" actresses. No English language version of this one, despite my, ahem, exhaustive research. I particularly like that it's not even a list of porn actresses; it's a list of lists of porn actresses.

Vietnamese: Danh sách tư thế quan hệ tình dục/Sex position. Because how else will you learn about sex positions?

German: Sackgasse/Cul-de-sac. I don't know why cul-de-sacs are such a source of curiosity for German-speakers. But they are.

French: Houx crénelé/Ilex crenata. French-speakers apparently care deeply about an ornamental species of holly native to east Asia.

The boring

Some countries use Wikipedia to look up normal boring things. How unimaginative of them.

Croatian: Zakon o sprječavanju internetskog piratstva/Stop Online Piracy Act

Slovak: Majstrovstvá sveta v ľadovom hokeji 2012/2012 IIHF World Championship

Czech: Seznam historických výročí/List of historical anniversaries

Danish: Te/Tea

Norwegian: Schrøder, an article about the Norwegian surname

Dutch: Hua Shan/Mount Hua

Turkish: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk/Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Thai: สมาคมประชาชาติแห่งเอเชียตะวันออกเฉียงใต้/Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Italian: Grey's Anatomy/Grey's Anatomy

Catalan: Mario Conde, a Spanish banker.

Hungarian: Magyar névnapok betűrendben, a list of Hungarian "name days".

Tech companies seem to be especially popular, and one in particular:

Chinese: 百度/Baidu

Korean: 네이버/Naver

Indonesian: Facebook/Facebook

Spanish: Facebook/Facebook

English: Facebook

The vain

Do you know what Wikipedians really like to do? Look up their own country:

Slovene: Slovenija/Slovenia

Estonian: Eesti/Estonia

Lithuanian: Lietuva/Lithuania

Greek: Ελλάδα/Greece

Hebrew: ישראל/Israel

Romanian: România/Romania

Finnish: Suomi/Finland

Swedish: Sverige/Sweden

Polish: Polska/Poland

Russian: Россия/Russia

Bulgarian: България/Bulgaria

Ukrainian: Україна/Ukraine

And a couple of not-quite entries:

Portugese: Brasil/Brazil

Persian: تهران/Tehran

Arabic: مصر/Egypt

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”