Monday, September 30, 2013

The CIA’s Most Highly-Trained Spies Weren’t Even Human

Two scenes, seemingly disjointed: the John le CarrĂ© shadows against the bright midway lights of county-fair Americana. But wars make strange bedfellows, and in one of the most curious, if little-known, stories of the cold war, the people involved in making poultry dance or getting cows to play bingo were also involved in training animals, under government contract, for defense and intelligence work. The same methods that lay behind Priscilla the Fastidious Pig or the Educated Hen informed projects such as training ravens to deposit and retrieve objects, pigeons to warn of enemy ambushes, or even cats to eavesdrop on human conversations. At the center of this Venn diagram were two acolytes of the psychologist B.F. Skinner, plus Bob Bailey, the first director of training for the Navy’s pioneering dolphin program. The use of animals in military intelligence dates back to ancient Greece, but the work that this trio undertook in the 1960s promised an entirely new level of sophistication, as if James Bond’s Q had met Marlin Perkins. more

Friday, September 27, 2013

B.F. Skinner Totally Geeks Out Over the Box He Built for His Baby

The Skinner Box, as applied to human infants, was not what you think it was. Psychologist B.F. Skinner did not raise his daughter inside a box without human contact. Nor did she later grow up to be crazy and commit suicide because of said lack of contact. In fact, just a few years ago, Deborah Skinner Buzan wrote a column for The Guardian debunking those powerful urban legends herself. Instead, what Skinner did was build his daughter the sort of crib that you might expect a scientist raised in the era of mid-20th-centuryPopular Science-style scientific futurism and convenience to build. more

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Toddlers Learn Language Faster Via Video When It’s Interactive

Toddlers can absorb a language while watching a video that is interactive, but not passive, according to a new study. The findings supply fresh fuel to the debate over whether video- and television-based learning is suitable for young toddlers...“There is some evidence that 18-month-olds will respond to the visuals of programs with words, especially if the content is of high quality. But other studies suggest children under the age of 22 months learn words less effectively from TV than from interactions with people.” To explore why children can readily learn words during live conversations, but less so with video, researchers...had three dozen 2 year olds learn new verbs in one of three scenarios: interacting with a live person, chatting with an adult via the audio and video chat program Skype, or watching a video where an adult taught words to another child who was off screen. more

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Old Memories Fade Away...

If you got beat up by a bully on your walk home from school every day, you would probably become very afraid of the spot where you usually met him. However, if the bully moved out of town, you would gradually cease to fear that area. Neuroscientists call this phenomenon "memory extinction": Conditioned responses fade away as older memories are replaced with new experiences. A new study from MIT reveals a gene that is critical to the process of memory extinction. more

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Better Carrot, A Better Stick

As [game] designers, we create the carrots and the sticks that drive players through our simulation. Most designers typically think first about the carrots -- the rewards and bennies that encourage players to pursue "good behavior," but equally important are the consequences of failure and tough decisions. It's the consequences that give these decisions real weight; they provide the emotional lift for the greatest rewards...Economists are fond of saying that you get the behavior you incentivize. One commonly cited fact from real life is that mandatory seat belt laws have resulted in an increase in pedestrian deaths. One consequence of wearing a seat belt is that the driver himself is safer, which allows him to drive faster and more recklessly. As designers, we must be careful of the behavior we incentivize -- it is dangerously easy to penalize good behavior, or reward activities that actively destroy the player's own game experience. If you make a game where jumping is faster than running, players will jump everywhere they go, no matter how silly it looks. more

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Financial Incentives Motivate Sedentary Adults to Exercise

A review study published today finds that financial incentives –as modest as $5 per week – can increase the amount of exercise people do. Lead author Marc Mitchell, University of Toronto PhD candidate and Cardiac Rehabilitation Supervisor at Toronto Rehab, worked under the leadership of University of Toronto exercise psychologist Guy Faulkner and exercise physiologist Jack Goodman to publish these findings in the September online publication of The American Journal of Preventive Medicine...“The time commitment and discomfort of exercise prevents many adults from starting regular exercise,” said Mitchell. “For those who do start, most drop out within six months.” Financial incentive-based public health strategies have gained popularity in North America in recent years, with smoking and weight loss being the more popular targets. “People’s actions tend to serve their immediate self-interest at the expense of long-term wellbeing,” said Mitchell. “This is often the case for exercise, where the costs are experienced in the present and the benefits are delayed. Because of this, many adults postpone exercise.” more

Friday, September 13, 2013

Let's Start With a Respect for Truth

Leon Wieseltier sees that the humanities are in a deep crisis, but his essay, "Crimes against the Humanities," is not a helpful contribution to its resolution. Name-calling and sarcasm are typically the last refuge of somebody who can't think of anything else to say to fend off a challenge he doesn't understand and can't abide. His response to Steven Pinker's proposed conciliation of science and the humanities is neither polite nor fair, and amounts, in the end, to a blustery attempt to lay down the law: It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. This is true enough, if carefully interpreted, but Wieseltier asserts it without argument, showing that he himself is not even trying to be a philosopher, but rather a Wise Divulger of the Undeniable Verities. He knows—take it from him. So this simple passage actually illustrates the very weakness of the humanities today that has encouraged scientists and other conscientious thinkers to try their own hand at answering the philosophical questions that press in on us, venturing beyond the confines of their disciplines to fill the vacuum left by the humanities. more

Thursday, September 12, 2013

New Research Shows That Predators Can Learn to Read Camouflage

Camouflaged creatures can perform remarkable disappearing acts but new research shows that predators can learn to read camouflage...The research was carried out by the University of Exeter and the University of Cambridge and is published in the journal PLOS ONE. Moths with high contrast markings -- that break up the shape of the body, like that of a zebra or giraffe -- were best at evading predation at the start of the experiment. However humans learnt to find these prey types faster than moths with low contrast markings that match the background, like that of a stick insect or leaf bug. more

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Behind the Shock Machine

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Milgram's experiments on "obedience to authority." In 1963, two years after the Nazi Adolf Eichmann had claimed at his trial that he was "only following orders" in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust, Milgram wanted to know how many everyday, good Americans would obey an authority figure when directly ordered to harm another human being... Some people hated the method and others the message, but the Milgram study has never faded from public attention. It has been endlessly retold in schoolrooms, textbooks, TV programs, novels, songs and films. What, then, is left to say about it? According to Gina Perry, an Australian psychologist and journalist, everything. She has investigated every aspect of the research and spoken with seemingly anyone who had a connection to Milgram (1933-84). In "Behind the Shock Machine," Ms. Perry wants to tell a different story about Milgram's 780 participants—who, in her account, had become "a faceless group that is said to represent humanity and to give proof of our troubling tendency to obey orders from an authority figure." By providing their personalities, backgrounds and some real names, she aims to restore their individuality, show how flawed and inconclusive the experiments were, and counteract what she considers Milgram's "bleak view of human nature." In short, she condemns the method and the message. more

Monday, September 09, 2013

Trainer Rewards Your Puppy For Pottying On Target

A sensor hidden inside the disposable paper cloths detects when a puppy has done its business on target, and automatically dispenses a treat while playing a chime to provide positive reinforcement for a job well done. After just a few days your dog should get the idea, and the $100 price tag is a wonderful alternative compared to how much it would cost to clean up after Fido uses your entire house as his bathroom while you're away. more

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Discovery Helps to Unlock Brain's Speech-Learning Mechanism

USC scientists have discovered a population of neurons in the brains of juvenile songbirds that are necessary for allowing the birds to recognize the vocal sounds they are learning to imitate ... [Sarah] Bottjer collaborated with lead author Jennifer Achiro, a graduate student at USC, to examine the activity of neurons in songbirds brains using electrodes to record the activity of individual neurons. In the basal ganglia--a complex system of neurons in the brain responsible for, among other things, procedural learning--Bottjer and Achiro were able to isolate two different types of neurons in young songbirds: ones that were activated only when the birds heard themselves singing, and others that were activated only when the birds heard the songs of adult birds that they were trying to imitate. more

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Nudged to the Produce Aisle by a Look in the Mirror

Samuel Pulido walked into his local grocery store on a sweltering day, greeted by cool air and the fantasy-world ambience of the modern supermarket. Soft music drifted. Neon-bright colors turned his head this way and that. “WOW!!!” gasped the posters hanging from entranceway racks, heralding the sugary drinks, wavy chips and Berry Colossal Crunch being thrust his way. Then he looked down at his grocery cart and felt quite a different tug. Inside the front of the buggy, hooked onto its red steel frame, was a mirror. It stretched nearly a foot across, and as Mr. Pulido gripped the cart a little more tightly, it filled with the reflection of his startled face. ... The mirror is part of an effort to get Americans to change their eating habits, by two social scientists outmaneuvering the processed-food giants on their own turf, using their own tricks: the distracting little nudges and cues that confront a supermarket shopper at every turn. The researchers, like many government agencies and healthy-food advocates these days, are out to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. But instead of preaching about diabetes or slapping taxes on junk food, they gently prod shoppers — so gently, in fact, that it’s hard to believe the results. more

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Learning How to Migrate: Young Whoopers Stay the Course When They Follow a Wise Old Bird

Scientists have studied bird migration for centuries, but it remains one of nature's great mysteries. How do birds find their way over long distances between breeding and wintering sites? Is their migration route encoded in their genes, or is it learned? Working with records from a long-term effort to reintroduce critically endangered whooping cranes in the Eastern U.S., a University of Maryland-led research team found evidence that these long-lived birds learn their migration route from older cranes, and get better at it with age. more