Before i Forget : Simon Jones's blog

January 2006

GeneralTuesday, January 31st, 2006, (12:46 pm)

I was thinking last night about hugging. Hugging is a funny thing really. I know why we do it, it’s nice and all that, but I wonder what it is that makes us hug? Then I wondered if maybe humans are the only animals that hug. I can’t really remember seeing animals hug or show each other the same kind of physical affection. I mean the other day as I was driving through Wales (killing wildlife) I didn’t see any sheep locked in embrace. I can’t imagine a sheep seeing another that they hadn’t seen for a while and greeting it with a hug.

Do we need to hug one another? Is there some inbuilt need within all of us to hold another? Not sex, not love, but just connection? A quick Google revealed that one robotics researchers at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh feel that we do indeed need hugs. They have developed a rather creepy robotic pillow that can give you a hug via a wireless phone as you speak to a friend or family member.

The ugly robotic hug pillow is shaped like a person about to give a hug, with two arms reaching up and out from a small torso. To remotely send a hug the parties involved both have to have one of these freaky pillows. The hugger then has to speak the name of the person they want to hug into a mic on their robotic hug pillow while squeezing its left paw. Using voice recognition software it then identifies the intended recipient of the hug and then contacts that person own robotic ugly hug pillow making it light up and play a sound.

The ‘hugee’ then squeezes the left paw on the pillow and says hello. Squeezes or pats of the pillow are picked up by sensors then converted into a data stream that is sent to the other otherwise lifeless hug pillow. Thermal fibers around the Hug’s belly radiate heat that increases with time. If someone is not home to receive a hug, the other person can leave a message that includes voice and vibration patterns.

Francine Gemperle, a researcher who worked on the project explained that the robotic hug pillow is purely experimental and there is no hope that it will be mass produced any time soon. “It would need to go through product development, where people may want to change its appearance and make it more adaptable to different-sized people.”

I find it hard to believe that squeezing a bag of beans is ever going to replace the feeling of hugging another person, in the same way that shagging a a blow doll surely can’t be that rewarding! But if people are researching ways to remotely hug it must tell us something about our strange, and dare I suggest, unique need to hold another.

Need a Hug? A Robotic Pillow Can Help
Carnegie Mellon University

GeneralMonday, January 30th, 2006, (3:50 pm)

My car is off to the body shop again after another road kill incident in Wales, almost a year after taking the life of a Badger in that country!

On this occasion the damage incurred to my car was only light. The incident that caused the damage resulted in the death of a wild welsh pheasant that decided to cross a fast Snowdownia road at the worst possible time.

I was following a guy who was driving annoying slow on corners but then fast on the straights. He was irritating me somewhat so when I saw the road was about to open up I dropped way back then buried the throttle into the corner so that I would be carrying much more speed as we entered the straight.

The car behind had much the same idea and as I went for the overtake, he followed right on my heels. As I drew along side the rear of the car I was passing, the aforementioned bird appeared from a roadside bush to my right stepping out onto the road bobbing her little head back and forth like they do.

It’s amazing that in those microseconds you have the capability to process so much information. I checked my rear-view mirror to work out if I could break hard and therefore miss the pheasant closely, but decided against this as the car behind me was too close and unaware of the excitement ahead. I then decided to bury the throttle and grip the wheel and simply take the pheasant out at 70-mph. But amazingly, and quite how in the time allowed I don’t really know, I decided to squeeze as much to the right as possible so that the bird would impact the left front of the car meaning the impact energy would not be 100% in the bumper area and therefore result in a lot of damage to the car.

BLAM!!! thud thud. The said pheasant is smashed then run over by both wheel of my car, then presumably the car behind to! Mercifully it would have been a quick end to her life. Though she made sure she would be remembered by cracking the bumper underside. I could ignore the damage but I might a well fix it.

I don’t feel too bad though. All the time we were in Wales we could hear gunshots as pheasants everywhere were being gunned down by men in hats and their trousers tucked into their socks.

GeneralSaturday, January 28th, 2006, (7:51 am)

It was a day that few who witnessed it on TV will ever forget; twenty years ago today the space shuttle Challenger, the pride of NASA’s fleet of three space shuttles, exploded seventy four seconds after its launch killing all seven crew including school teacher Christa McAuliffe, 37, who was picked from among 10,000 entries for a competition to be the first school teacher in space.

I can vividly recall the event. I was just a kid at the time, and I had just gotten in from school and fixed myself a drink before sitting in front of the TV. Newsround, a TV news show directed toward kids, was just starting. The presenter, Roger Finn, seemed unprepared, something unrehearsed was clearly happening then pictures of the space shuttle were shown, something had clearly gone very wrong.

At that point I stood up and ran to the living room door and shouted down the hallways to my Mom who was in the kitchen. “Mom, the space shuttle has blown up!” Seconds later, still drying her hands on a dish cloth, Mom raced into the room and we both stood there transfixed by the pictures that were just being shown of the launch and then the horrific explosion.

This was in the days before 24/7 news stations in the UK, and at that point the only news on TV in the whole country across the 4 channels we had back then, was Newsround. Roger Finn knew it too, and his finely scripted news show for kids was set aside because history was unfolding right before everyone’s eyes.

Pretty soon the other channels had interrupted their scheduled shows with news flashes. “Oh dear, this is terrible.” My Mom said as she sat down on the sofa with a very serious look on her face that reminded me of the look she had when the SAS swooped on the Iranian embassy in London violently ending a siege in which terrorists had taken embassy staff hostage.

They showed the explosion over and over and over again, backward and forward, in normal speed and slow motion. The sound-byte that was forever to be etched into my memory that day was James D. Wetherbee of mission control in Houston saying “Challenger, go with throttle up” and shuttle Commander, Francis R. ‘Dick’ Scobee saying “Roger, go with throttle up.” Moments later Challenger was engulfed in a fireball, the radio crackled and the two rockets tore off and flew aimlessly across a dark blue backdrop of the edge of space.

Roger Finn, at the time a new anchor for the Newsround show, later recalled the event. “The Challenger explosion was not quite my first time in the Newsround chair – it was more like my sixth or so. Even so, you could see from the look on my face that I was plumbing new depths of stark fear. The news broke about fifteen minutes before we were on air, and an important principle was established: if a major news story broke during Children’s programs then Newsround would break it. On this occasion I remember Julia Somerville (the main BBC news presenter) coming into the studio and some sort of ‘conversation’ going on between Children’s [programming] and News. Children’s won and we did the newsflash.”

This was the 25th launch of a space shuttle and was by now no longer a big event as far as news coverage was concerned. Newsround however was due to lead with the space shuttles launch due to the fact that it was the first time a school teacher was going to space, and therefore it had a connection with the target audience of the show. Instead though Newsround found itself breaking terrible news of the disaster first to the children of England before any other news bulletins could prepare their news flashes.

[Video] Brief clip of how cBBC Newsround announced the news
[Video] ABC (US) news from Jan 28th, 1986
[Video] Another view of the explosion from a nearby news van
[Video] 17 years later Columbia breaks up on re-entry Feb 1st 2003
Challenger : Twenty years on
Watch the original BBC news report
Roger Finn recalls the event
children’s BBC – Newsround
Other people’s memories of the day

General and PoliticalFriday, January 27th, 2006, (7:42 am)

Researchers of clinical psychology at Emory University have found that Democrats and Republicans alike are quite adept at making decisions without letting the facts get in the way. The study monitored the brain activity of staunch party members from both parties as they were asked to evaluate information that threatened their preferred candidate in the lead up to the 2004 Presidential election.

According to Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University, there was no increased activity in the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.”

According to the report test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring On both sides of the political aisle information that could not rationally be discounted was ignored allowing the subject to reach a totally biased conclusion. Then interestingly, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions while activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward. This reaction is similar to the brain response a drug addict experience when they get a fix.

“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged, essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.” Said Westen.

The researchers, who will present their findings tomorrow at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, conclude the study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making. Not only that but they suggest that everyone from executives and judges and even scientists may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts.’

Political brains scanned

Found on the webThursday, January 26th, 2006, (6:14 pm)

Well after you all go so very excited about the iTunes signature mix I posted about yesterday, I thought I’d give you another site to enthuse so enthusiastically about., a site that according to it’s own hype “is one of the world’s first applications to apply the scientifically advanced technologies of face detection and recognition to family history and to consumer photos.”

It’s still in its early stages though, a fact that became quite obvious when it suggested that I look very similar to Rita Hayworth! The software also flatteringly suggested that I might also look similar to Leanardo DiCaprio or even Bradd Pitt! Now, though I say it myself, I don’t think I’m a bad looking chap, but its stretching things to suggest that I might be mistaken for a hollywood heart throb.

But after a flattering start the software also felt that I look somewhat like actor Dennis Quaid, producer/director Steven Speilberg, and most worrying of all, the lateMaurice Gibb from the BeeGee’s! – who do you look like?

Found on the web and MusicWednesday, January 25th, 2006, (2:45 pm)

That’s the question posed by Jason Freeman who has created a clever, but ultimately useless, little Java program that he says describes who you are and what you listen to by creating a short sonic signature of your iTunes music library.

Freeman is an assistant professor in the music department at the Georgia Institute of Technology and has had his interactive installations and software art exhibited at the Lincoln Center Festival, the Boston CyberArt Festival, and the Transmediale Festival as well as featured in the New York Times and on NPR.

Hi iTunes Signature Maker (iTSM) analyzes your music collection and creates a short audio signature to represent who you are and what you listen to. After it checks your system configuration and asks you a few simple questions, iTSM will spend a few minutes analyzing your collection and generating the audio signature.

The audio files it produces are turbulent yet strangely charming musical melee. It reminds me of the start of the movie Contact. If you have iTunes on your computer try it, and he even allows you to share your mix on his website, so if you do then make sure you post a link in your comment. They’re very interesting.

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