December 4, 2013
On “60 Minutes” the other night, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made drones fun again. They’re usually associated with clandestine warfare, but Bezos showed interviewer Charlie Rose–along with the millions of others watching–how the unmanned aircraft can be cool little gizmos that become a part of our daily lives–in this case by delivering stuff you ordered from Amazon right to your doorstep.
Bezos used the program to reveal the wonders of Amazon’s “octocopter,” a mini-drone with the capability of achieving the Holy Grail of e-commerce–deliveries within 30 minutes. This is still years away, as Bezos acknowledged, but it’s clear he thinks drones will one day be as ubiquitous as Domino’s drivers.
Bezos’ demo had the desired effect–his octocopter was all over the Internet on Cyber Monday, burnishing Amazon’s reputation as a company gliding along the cutting edge of customer service. Some derided the the whole thing as little more than a beautifully orchestrated publicity stunt, given the not insignificant hurdles commercial drones still need to clear. Other websites, such as The Telegraph in the U.K., piled on. It produced a list of nine things that could go “horribly wrong”–from drone hackers to long weather delays to packages falling from the sky.
The truth is, we won’t really know all that can go wrong–or right–with commercial drones until closer to 2020, at least in the U.S. It could happen sooner, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been moving slowly and cautiously, not surprising, considering that we’re talking about tens of thousands of pilotless vehicles buzzing around in public airspace. Extensive drone testing at six still-to-be-named locations won’t begin until next year, almost a year and a half behind the schedule set by Congress.
Me, my drone and I
But let’s step back for a minute and forget about messy things like political and legal realities. If Bezos is right, more personal drones are inevitable. Many, no doubt, will be used to make deliveries. (That already appears to be happening in China.) But what else will they be able to do?
Plenty, if you believe some of the ideas that have been floated. And those little flying machines could become a lot more personal than most of us would have imagined.
Consider the possibilities:
1) I’m ready for my selfie: Not long ago, a group of designers from a product strategy firm named frog staged a workshop with the purpose of imagining ways that drones could become a much bigger part of our lives. One idea was an aircraft called the Paparazzi, and, true to its name, it would be all about following you around and recording your life in photos and videos. It would then feed everything directly to your Facebook page. Yes, it sounds ridiculously self-indulgent, but then again, who could have imagined our obsession with self portraits on phones?
2) Cut to the chase: Here’s another idea from the frog workshop, a drone they named the Guardian Angel. Described as the “ultimate accessory for serious runners,” it would act as a trainer or exercise companion by flying ahead and setting the pace. It could conceivably tap into data from a heart monitor a runner is wearing and push him or her harder to get pulse rate up. Or it could use data from a previous run and let a person race against himself. In short, these drones would be like wearable tech that you don’t actually wear.
3) Take that, Siri: Researchers at M.I.T., meanwhile, have developed a personal drone app they’ve named Skycall, which serves as a personal tour guide. Sure, you can listen to your smartphone give you directions, but this app/drone combo would actually show you the way. It works like this: You tell the app on your phone where you want to go and it would then identify and contact the nearest unmanned aircraft. It would show up, like a flying cab, and lead you to your destination.
4) Allow me to revel in my greatness: A British drone maker has designed one that’s a variation of the Paparazzi mentioned above, although his is geared more to outdoor types, such as mountain bikers,snowboarders and surfers. It tracks a person through a smartphone and, from overhead, takes a steady stream of photos and videos to capture his or her awesomeness for posterity.
5) An idea whose time has already come: Finally, Dan Farber, writing for CNET the other day, raised the prospect of what he called a “Kindle Drone.” He sees it as a device about the size of a baseball, loaded with sensors and a camera, that would serve as a guard and personal assistant. On one hand, it could roam your house gathering data and generally making sure everything’s in order. On the other, you could direct it to go find your phone.
Now that has potential.
Video bonus: Here’s a drone in action in China, delivering a cake from the air.
Video bonus bonus: It’s safe to say this is the only engagement ring delivered by drone.
Video bonus plus: Need to map the Matterhorn. No problem, drones at your service.
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November 27, 2013
Tomorrow, most Americans will say they are grateful for many things–except, chances are, for the one thing they should be most thankful for when they sit down to the table.
I’m talking about our sense of taste, a faculty more nuanced than sight or hearing or touch, and one that’s become sadly under appreciated as eating has turned into just another thing we multi-task.
But this is a holiday during which the sense is celebrated, if only for a few hours. We savor flavors again, slow down enough to remember there are actually five distinct tastes we experience–sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, or meaty–instead of one indefinable gulp of bland.
In that spirit, let’s pay due respect to taste with a rundown of what research has taught us this year about the sense.
1) Eating more, enjoying it less: Last week, a team of University at Buffalo biologists published a study concluding that obesity can actually change how food tastes. At least that’s what they found in mice. They determined that compared to their slimmer peers, severely overweight mice had fewer taste cells that responded to sweetness, and that the cells that did respond did so weakly. Explained lead researcher Kathryn Medler: “What we see is that even at this level–at the first step in the taste pathway–the taste receptor cells themselves are affected by obesity.”
2) And no, it can’t make everything taste like bacon: It probably was just a matter of time, but scientists in Singapore have developed a digital simulator capable of transmitting the taste of virtual food to the tongue. And that, they say, could make it possible for a person to virtually taste food being prepared on a cooking show or featured in a video game. The researchers said the taste simulator could also be used to let diabetes patients taste sweetness without eating sweets.
3) Reason #200 that getting old stinks: As we get older, our response to different tastes changes, according to research on rats by Japanese scientists. They found that young rats love sugary and meaty flavors in foods, but really hated bitter ones. Older rats had just the opposite reaction–they were less enamored of sweets and umami flavors, but didn’t have nearly the aversion to bitter tastes as the young ones.
4) Who eats cheese with a spoon?: Apparently, the utensil you use to consume food can affect how you perceive its flavor. Among the findings of a team of researchers from Oxford University: If yogurt is eaten with a light plastic spoon, people tend to think it tastes denser and more expensive. Or when white yogurt was eaten with a white spoon, it was judged to be sweeter and more expensive than pink yogurt. But if a black spoon was used, the pink yogurt was thought to be sweeter. And one more: When cheese was eaten from a toothpick, spoon, fork and knife, it was rated saltiest when a knife was used.
5) But it’s still weird to keep different foods from touching on your plate: If you engage in some kind of ritual before you eat food, you are more likely to enjoy it, concludes a study published in Psychological Science. In one of several experiments they performed on the subject, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that people who were instructed to first break a chocolate bar in half, unwrap one half and eat it, then repeat the process with the other half rated the treat higher–and were willing to pay more money for it–than people who were told to eat the chocolate however they wanted.
6) Like, it always tastes better if you say “Arrgh” first: According to a study by a psychologist at the University of Oxford, the environment in which whiskey is imbibed can make a difference in how it tastes. A group of about 500 people who weren’t whiskey connoisseurs were asked to taste a single-malt Scotch in three different settings: a room with a turf floor, the sound of baa-ing sheep and the smell of fresh-cut grass; another with a sweet fragrance and a high-pitched tinkling sound; and the third with wood paneling, the sound of leaves crunching and the smell of cedar. According to their ratings on scorecards, they found the whiskey in the first room “grassier,” the Scotch in the second room “sweeter” and their drinks in the third room “woodier.” Although it was all the same Scotch, the study participants said they liked the whiskey they tasted in the “woody” room the most.
7) Beer wins again!: And while we’re on the subject, just the taste of alcohol can set off a release of dopamine in the brain. Scientists at the University of Indiana did brain scans of 49 men who first tasted beer and then Gatorade, and the researchers saw that the dopamine activity was much higher after men tasted the beer. The study also found that the dopamine release was greater among the men with a history of alcoholism in their families.
8) Even then, they didn’t hold the mustard: As long as 6,000 years ago, humans were spicing up their food. Researchers found evidence of garlic mustard in the residue left in pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany. Because garlic mustard has little nutritional value, the scientists from the University of York believe that it was used to add flavor to meals. The findings run counter to the conventional wisdom that ancient humans were solely focused on eating food to give them strength and endurance.
9) Must not work with fries: Taste sensors in the tongue have evolved so that while animals like salt, they are repulsed when something is too salty. This triggers the same avoidance response as when something is found to be too bitter or sour, according to a study published in the journal Nature earlier this year. In fact, said the researchers, mice that had been genetically engineered to be unable to detect bitter or sour tastes couldn’t gauge when they were consuming too much salt.
10) That’s right, “mutant cockroaches”: A strain of mutant cockroaches apparently has evolved to the point where they are now repulsed by the glucose in the sugar traps meant to catch them. A team of scientists in North Carolina tested the theory by giving hungry cockroaches a choice of glucose-rich jelly or peanut butter. And this particular type of cockroach recoiled at the taste of jelly while swarming over the peanut butter. Additional analysis of the pests’ taste receptors showed that they now perceive jelly–and therefore sweet flavors–as a bitter taste.
Video bonus: Just in case you want visual evidence of the above discovery about the mutant pests, check out this BBC video of a cockroach taste test.
Video bonus bonus: A dirty little secret is that at some point all parents mess with their babies, like when they get them to taste a lemon for the first time.
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November 26, 2013
No one will ever confuse Detroit with Eden. Many, in truth, would consider it just the opposite—a place rotting from the the inside, broke and blighted and iconically grim.
So it’s not just ironic, it actually borders on inconceivable that the city is now being cited as a pioneer in urban rejuvenation—specifically, the trend of bringing farms and gardens back to the inner city.
Detroit took a big step in that direction last month when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an agreement allowing the Hantz Group, a Michigan-based network of financial services companies, to take over about 1,500 parcels of land on the city’s east side and start demolishing abandoned buildings. Once the lots are cleared, the company plans to plant 15,000 trees, mainly maples and oaks.
Originally, Hantz floated the idea of converting the land to fruit orchards and Christmas tree farms, with the notion that they could provide neighborhood residents with both jobs and fresh produce. After objections that all that fruit could attract rats, the company scaled back to only hardwood trees, for the time being. The first step, Hantz officials acknowledge, is to show a commitment to getting a lot of trees in the ground while building trust with neighbors. There could, after all, be some dicey discussions ahead on such touchy subjects as the use of pesticides.
Critics say Hantz got one sweet deal—it paid a little more than $500,000 for the lots, or about $350 per parcel—and they’re dubious about its long-term commitment to the greening of Detroit. Company officials insist they’re in this for the long haul and say that they will spend another $3 million over the next three years, not to mention that they’ll be paying property taxes on land that hasn’t been generating any revenue for the city.
A lot of other cities are watching closely to see how this plays out. Is it an answer to reviving city neighborhoods in a relentless downward spiral? Will it make a difference only if built around large-scale projects like what Hantz has in mind? Or is all the talk of inner-city farms and orchards just the latest urban renewal fantasy?
For several years now, Mayor Dave Bing has been boosting urban agriculture as one of the keys to revitalizing Detroit, and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who is now running the bankrupt city, signed off on the Hantz deal in October. Also, last year, the city became one of the partners in a Michigan State University program focused on developing innovative ways to grow crops and trees on vacant city lots.
Detroit has a lot more of those than most cities—more than 60,000—but this is becoming a common problem. A Brookings Institution study found that between 2000 and 2010, the number of vacant housing units in the U.S. jumped by 44 percent.
That’s a lot of empty space out there.
For dramatic effect, no trend in the greening of cities can top vertical gardens, which started out as plant-covered walls, but have evolved into skyscrapers draped in vegetation. It’s only fitting that French botanist Patrick Blanc, who invented the concept back in 1988, is behind what will soon become the world’s tallest vertical garden, one that will cover much of the exterior of a 33-story condo going up in Sydney, Australia. Almost half of the building’s exterior will be covered in vegetation—actually, 350 different species of plants. The effect, says Blanc, is to replicate the side of a cliff.
It’s easier being green
Here are other recent developments in the urban agriculture boom:
- Let’s go downtown and pick some apples: Earlier this year, a Vancouver business named Sole Food Farms converted an old gas station into North America’s largest urban orchard. It grew 500 fruit trees, mainly apple, in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, with the goal of not only selling organic food to local restaurants, but also providing jobs to recovering addicts and alcoholics in the neighborhood.
- Bargain basements: On Cleveland’s East Side, a designer named Jean Loria has created what she says is the “world’s first biocellar.” It follows her notion of reusing abandoned homes by tearing them down, then reinforcing the existing basements and topping them with slanted, greenhouse-like roofs that would make it possible to grow crops inside. Powered by solar energy and irrigated with harvested rain water, the odd-looking structures, says Loria, could be used for growing strawberries, mushrooms and other organic food.
- You too can be a farmer: Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law allowing local municipalities to lower property taxes on plots of three acres or less if the owners commit to growing food on them for at least five years. The program is voluntary, but it’s designed to motivate cities to create “urban agriculture incentive zones.”
- And here’s a new twist: The design of a skyscraper planned for Berlin is, on its own, pretty imaginative—its curved design creates a figure-8 shape. But the architects want the building, called Green8, to to wrap around multiple levels of vertical gardens that fill up the structure’s hollow sections. And all the greenery isn’t cosmetic—the intent is to include gardens, small orchards and mini-farms to provide fresh produce for the people who live there.
- Dirt is so overrated: For those who want to get in on the urban ag boom, but don’t have much farmable land, there’s GrowCube. Still in the prototype stage, it’s a device that works like a rotisserie of circling shelves while spraying a nutrient-filled mist directly on a plant’s roots. Its inventors acknowledge that since no dirt is involved, the growing process is “much more fragile” than conventional agriculture, but they point out that it uses 95 percent less water.
Video bonus: It’s a TED talk, so this video is a little long, but it would be hard to find a better evangelist for city farming than Ron Finley, who wants to train residents in South Central LA to grow their own food.
Video bonus bonus: One of the better-known urban farming operations in the U.S. is the Brooklyn Grange, which has been making a go of growing crops on large city rooftops. Here’s the trailer from the new documentary, Brooklyn Farmer.
Video bonus bonus bonus: And, to add a little snark to the mix, here’s a take on being an urban farmer from Funny or Die.
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November 1, 2013
All of us have had a teacher who had eyes in the back of his or her head. Even while facing the blackboard, they saw everything—every note being passed, every answer being copied, every face being made.
Or at least it seemed that way. All they really had to do was guess right a few times about what was going on behind their backs and, well, that is how classroom legends are made.
But what if you took all the guessing out of the picture? What if cameras focused on every kid in the class? That’s what a New York company named SensorStar Labs has in mind, although the point would not be to catch miscreants, but rather to help teachers determine when they’ve lost the class.
Here’s how it would work. Using facial recognition software called EngageSense, computers would apply algorithms to what the cameras have recorded during a lecture or discussion to interpret how engaged the students have been. Were the kids’ eyes focused on the teacher? Or were they looking everywhere but the front of the class? Were they smiling or frowning? Or did they just seem confused? Or bored?
Teachers would be provided a report that, based on facial analysis, would tell them when student interest was highest or lowest. Says SensorStar co-founder Sean Montgomery, himself a former teacher: “By looking at maybe just a couple of high points and a couple of low points, you get enough takeaway. The next day you can try to do more of the good stuff and less of the less-good stuff.”
No doubt some parents are going to have a lot of questions about what happens to all that video of their kids’ faces. But Montgomery is confident that most will agree to let their children be videotaped when they see how much it helps teachers polish their skills.
He’s convinced that in five years, teachers all over the country will be using it. First, though, he has to prove that the SensorStar algorithms can truly interpret the workings of young minds based simply on eye movement and facial expression.
That, of course, assumes teachers will jump right on board. Which is hardly a sure thing, given the response last year to a report that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is helping to fund the development of sensor bracelets that could, in theory at least, track a student’s engagement level.
The wrist devices are designed to send a small current across the skin and then measure subtle changes in electrical charges as the nervous system responds to stimuli. These bracelets have been used in tests to gauge how consumers respond to advertising, and the thinking goes that if they can tell you how excited someone gets while watching a car ad, they can give you a sense of how jazzed a kid can get about fractions. (Or not.)
Not so fast, snapped skeptics. They were quick to point out that just because a second grader is excited doesn’t mean he or she is learning something. And while the bracelets’ boosters argue that their purpose is to help teachers, critics say that no one should be surprised if the sensors eventually are used to evaluate them. Some teachers suggested that they might have to work random screams into their lesson plans to keep the excitement level high.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether, like Bill Gates, you believe that accumulating and analyzing data from classroom behavior is the key to applying science to the learning process. Or, if you think that teaching is more art than science, and that the connection between teachers and students is too complex and nuanced to be measured through a collection of data points.
Who’s your data?
- And you will not eat a salad your first six months in college: More and more colleges are using predictive analysis to give students a good idea of how they’ll fare in a class before they even sign up for it. By using data from a student’s own academic performance and from others who have already taken the class, advisers can predict with increasing accuracy how likely it is that a particular student will succeed or fail.
- Please like this investment: Last week Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made his first investment in a startup company—he joined a team of investors putting $4 million in seed money behind a Massachusetts company named Panorama Education. It crunches data from surveys it does for schools from K to 12, ranging from subjects such as why some promising students end up failing to why bullying is particularly prominent among ninth grade boys.
- Acing the tests: A smartphone app called Quick Key has an optical scanner that can quickly grade SAT-style bubble answer sheets. Then it uploads the results to teachers’ electronic grade books and analyzes the data.
- Apple-picking time: Earlier this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that iPads make up 94 percent of the tablets now used in schools. The company’s sales have slowed in the consumer market, so it’s been making a big push into education by offering discounts for bulk purchases.
- And they probably drew outside the lines: A new study from Michigan State University found that people who were involved in artistic activities while they were in school tended to be more innovative when they grew up—specifically that they were more likely to generate patents and launch businesses as adults.
Video bonus: Bill Gates offers his take on how he thinks teachers should be given feedback.
Video bonus bonus: Here’s a different twist on facial recognition in the classroom.
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October 15, 2013
There are those who believe that negotiation is an art, an intricate weaving of flattery, bombast, bluffing and accomodation that only a relative few truly master. And then, there are proponents of the science of negotiation, specifically what researchers have learned about why it seems impossible for some people to agree, how perception of power can make a big difference and what little things can make a deal go your way.
Here are 10 studies on negotiation and influence that scientists have published in the past year:
1) I never get tired of being right all the time: Researchers at Duke University found that people on the far edges of the political spectrum—both left and right—tend to be guilty of “belief superiority,” That means that not only do they believe that their position is right, but also that all other views are inferior. Based on surveys of 527 adults on nine hot-button issues, the researchers determined that hardcore conservatives felt most superior about their views on voter identification laws, taxes and affirmative action, while diehard liberals felt most superior about their views on government aid for the needy, torture and not basing laws on religion. The scientists did note that the tendency for people with extreme views to be overly confident is not limited to politics.
2) I am tweeter, hear me roar: An analysis of tweets during American sporting events, such as the Super Bowl, concluded that people who were more opinionated in their tweets not only ended up with more followers, but were also believed to be more trustworthy. Using a word filter that allowed them to review more than a billion tweets, researchers from Washington State University found that being confident was more important than being accurate when it came to a tweeter’s popularity.
3) The lame game: According to a study at Stanford University, making weak arguments for a cause may actually be more effective in encouraging someone to become an advocate than presenting them with a strong argument. The researchers suggested that people who already believe in a cause are more likely to lend support when they hear weak arguments for that cause, because they feel that, by comparison, they have more to offer than the advocates they are hearing.
4) Sorry seems to be the smartest word: One way to get people to trust you more is to apologize for things for which you have absolutely no blame. That’s the finding of researchers from the Harvard Business School, who believe that saying you’re sorry for bad weather or hideous traffic or the loss by a local sports team can cause people to find you more credible. Instead of making you look weak, the study found that so-called “superfluous apologies” can help you seem empathetic and leads people to trust you more.
5) The “I’s” don’t have it: New research at the University of Texas contends that people who use “I” a lot tend to be less powerful and sure of themselves than those who limit their use of the pronoun. According to researcher James Pennebaker, frequent “I” users subconsciously believe they are subordinate to the person to whom they’re talking. He says “the high-status person is looking out at the world and the low-status person is looking at himself.”
6) The eyes don’t have it: While negotiating, it may not be such a good idea to look the other party straight in the eye, after all. A study published earlier this month in Psychological Science says that making eye contact may actually make people who disagree with you less likely to change their minds. Researchers found that the more time viewers spent looking at speakers’ eyes, the less likely they were to shift to the speakers’ point of view. Eye contact seemed to be effective only when a viewer already agreed with a speaker.
7) Keeping it unreal: And if you’re in negotiations with someone who has more power than you do, you may not even want to talk face-to-face, according to a study presented by British researchers earlier this year. In two different studies in which the same negotiation was conducted face-to-face, and then in a sophisticated 3-D virtual simulation, those with less power performed better in the virtual negotiations.
8) Avoid rounding errors: Two professors at Columbia Business School found that if you make a very specific offer, as opposed to one rounded up to a number with zeroes, you’re more likely to end up with a better result. The researchers said that if someone makes an offer of say, $5,015, instead of a nice round $5,000, they are thought be more knowledgeable about the value of an object.
9) Make him an offer he can’t forget: Research at Johns Hopkins University provides a bit more advice—make the first offer. Studies by researcher Brian Gunia show that that makes your counterparts focus on your offer, even when they know they’d be better off if they ignored it. When managers took part in a hypothetical negotiation, those who made the initial offer nearly doubled their take-home value compared to those who let the other person start the bidding.
10) Charm-schooled: Using “feminine charm” can help women show confidence, and that benefits them in negotiations, according to a study at the University of California, Berkeley. Researcher Laura Kray found that women who said they used more social charm were rated more effective by their negotiation partners. However, men who said they used more social charm were not regarded as more effective. According to Kray, friendly flirtation in these settings is not sexual, but instead seen as authentic, engaging behavior that reflects warmth.
Video bonus: Yes, it’s a Heineken commercial, but it’s about a ploy where men, gunning for some sports tickets, try to convince women to buy furniture.
Video bonus bonus: While we’re passing out advice, wouldn’t it be great to win every argument even if you’re never right? Pick a strategy.
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