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An expert’s guide to bar fights

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog


Most of us have probably never been in a bar fight, but we have some notions about them—why they start, who’s involved, maybe even some tactics.

In an entertaining essay on the culture website Ordinary Times, Burt Likko—an attorney who litigated bar-fight cases in the 1990s—explains that in reality, they often play out differently than we assume.

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One of the first surprises is that bar-fight lawsuits are common, many targeting the bars themselves for not providing adequate security, or for serving a known brawler. Another surprise is that, in Likko’s experience, most bar fights don’t happen over a woman or a spilled drink, but rather arise when a drunk patron refuses to leave. The customer breaks the bouncer’s grip and either knocks into another patron or is caught by the bouncer, and violence ensues.

Surprise number three: The fights don’t last long. This is where things get vivid and unpleasant. “The phrase bar ‘fight’ is something of a misnomer,” Likko writes. “‘Assault and battery’ are closer to the mark....One person is usually better than the other at violence, and the winning tactic seems to be somehow immobilizing the opponent at an early point in the melee.”

A movie bar fight might look dramatic, even titillating, but as Likko details the real-world version—the chaos, the stumbling lack of control, the hard press of a floor against a face—any sense of excitement vanishes pretty quickly.

Each robot teach robot

A few months ago I wrote about engineers at MIT who’ve created “self-assembling” robots. Now reports on another crucial step toward what’s coming to feel like the inevitable robot apocalypse: a Wikipedia-type network that allows robots all over the world to learn from each other.

The system is called RoboEarth, and it addresses a genuine impediment to building useful “service robots”—machines that perform chores for us around the house or pull items in warehouses. They function very narrowly, and can only do exactly the things we teach them to do. The article imagines a robot taught to pour your morning bowl of cornflakes, which might stop, unable to complete the task, if one morning you decide to have raisin bran instead. But maybe a robot on the other side of the world has already been taught to navigate just this particular kind of challenge, and that’s where RoboEarth comes in. It’s an online platform—similar to Wikipedia or a social network—that stores robot knowledge by category (“household appliances” or “food”) in a kind of common language that other robots can tap into. The article concludes, “The RoboEarth demonstration is just the start of what will become an increasing trend of intelligent, autonomous machines sharing knowledge over the internet.”


Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at
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