How we Relate to Animals

Brenda Cooper @ 27-07-2011

So…last month I explored progress with stem cells. I plan to return to the futuristic medicine topic again soon, but this month I decided to talk about animals.

We have three dogs: a golden retriever and two border collies. The border collies are wicked smart. I’m pretty sure that across some narrow bands they are smarter than we are. For example, they can manipulate us into behaving the way they want pretty effectively – they’re herding dogs, after all. Sometimes they’ll get us all gathered together before we even realize it. Other times we know, but they still manipulate us into doing what they want. They have to vary their techniques regularly to keep succeeding. I am a hundred percent confident that smarts, feelings, and sometimes a big chunk of creativity goes into their behaviors. Continue reading “How we Relate to Animals”


Pixel-Bitching: L.A. Noire and the Art of Conversation

Jonathan McCalmont @ 22-06-2011

It didn’t take me long to realise that something wasn’t right.

As a devotee of noir fiction and a long-time admirer of both James Ellroy’s LA Quartet and Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), I was more than looking forward to Team Bondi’s attempt to recreate 1950s Los Angeles using the Grand Theft Auto sandbox template. However, as soon as Ken Cosgrove was shoved into an interview room with a suspect and told to extract a confession, I knew that something was desperately wrong – not just with L.A. Noire, but with video games as a whole. After decades of investment in realistic graphics and physics engines, modern video games can perfectly recreate what it is like to shoot someone in the face… but ask them to recreate a believable conversation between two humans and they are at a complete loss. What we need is a revolution in the way that games portray social interaction. Continue reading “Pixel-Bitching: L.A. Noire and the Art of Conversation”


The Talks We Remember

Brenda Cooper @ 06-04-2011

Last month I wrote about crowdfunding. And I’m now into three projects, all of which succeeded (two books and a movie). When they show up, I’ll blog about them over at my site.

This month, I was questing around for a good topic when the household fourteen-year-old asked us both to watch a video. The speech happened at least fifteen years ago, but it is exactly relevant today. I found myself blinking back tears as I listened, both because the speech was so good, and because it could be delivered to the very same people today. I highly recommend that you stop for a minute and watch/listen to the talk by Severn Suzuki, which will provide some background for the rest of this column. The You Tube video of the talk is called “The girl who silenced the world for five minutes.” Continue reading “The Talks We Remember”


Project recreates Ray Bradbury’s Happylife Home

Paul Raven @ 31-08-2010

Poor old Ray Bradbury: constantly pestered for soundbites by lazy journalists exploiting his oldster’s dislike of the internet (big name + dissenting opinion = linkbait!), and lampooned (or is it celebrated?) in a cuss-laden viral video [NSFW, natch]. This isn’t the future he imagined at all.

At least, not completely. FlowingData points us toward a conceptual project inspired in part by Bradbury’s story “The Veldt”; the Happylife Home analyses the moods and emotions of its occupants and feeds back that data in non-verbal visual forms. As always with such projects, the abstracts and explanations are part of the fun (at least for me):

In the context of national security, criminal activity and human safety, technology is usually seen as a means to an end; however dark or invasive the application, its presence is accepted because the worst case scenario would be infinitely worse. Thus, through these means ‘smart’ technologies are entering our lives and being applied as infallible judges and experts of human character and state.

But with a slight shift in context: applying their powers in the domestic setting, the political justifications are removed allowing us to freely explore these technologies for what they are.

Erm, sure. OK. So what’s the box on the wall do?

We built a visual display linked to the thermal image camera. This employs facial recognition to differentiate between members of the family. Each member has one rotary dial and one RGB LED display effectively acting like emotional barometers. These show current state and predicted state, the predicted state being based on years of accumulated statistical data.

There is no written feedback on emotional state, it is left to the viewer to interpret this final position of the dial: ‘Is it where it was this morning?’ ‘Why has it spun so far round?’

An interesting project, but not one I think I’d want in my home – it’d just add a whole new level of meta-anxiety on top of all the other stressors of life, surely?* Unless the idea is to build a sort of aesthetically abstract form of biofeedback therapy…

[ * Yes, I’m the sort of person who can find themselves worrying about how much or how little worrying I’ve been doing. Never a dull moment, I tell you. ]


Happiness and sadness go viral

Paul Raven @ 19-07-2010

Once again, research threatens to vindicate an old intuitive idea: that the emotional states of happiness and sadness can be contagious, spreading between individuals in much the same way that flu does. The bad news? It looks like sadness is far more virulent than happiness

In the current study, Hill’s team compared patterns of relationships and emotions measured in the study to those generated by a model designed to track SARS, foot-and-mouth disease and other traditional contagions. They discounted spontaneous or immediately shared emotion — friends or relatives undergoing a common experience — and focused on emotional changes that followed changes in others.

In the spread of happiness, the researchers found clusters of “infected” and “uninfected” people, a pattern considered a “hallmark of the infectious process,” said Hill. “For happiness, clustering is what you expect from contagion rates. Whereas for sadness, the clusters were much larger than we’d expect. Something else is going on.”

Happiness proved less social than sadness. Each happy friend increased an individual’s chances of personal happiness by 11 percent, while just one sad friend was needed to double an individual’s chance of becoming unhappy.

At this point it’s worth remembering (as the researchers themselves point out) that correlation isn’t causation:

Both Hill and Rand warned that the findings illustrate broad, possible dynamics, and are not intended to guide personal decisions, such as withdrawing from friends who are having a hard time.

“The better solution is to make your sad friends happy,” said Rand.

Amen to that.


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