The tortoise and the touchscreen

July 29th, 2014

wilkinsonIg Nobel Prize winners Anna Wilkinson [pictured here, with a tortoise] and Ludwig Huber have now done an experiment with four tortoises and a touchscreen. (Wilkinson and Huber, together with colleagues Natalie Sebanz and Isabella Mandl, were awarded the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize for physiology, for their study “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise.”)

The new study is: “Touchscreen performance and knowledge transfer in the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria),” Julia Mueller-Paul, Anna Wilkinson, Ulrike Aust, Michael Steurer, Geoffrey Hall, Ludwig Huber, Behavioural Processes, vol. 106, July 2014, pp. 187–192. The authors, at the University of Vienna, Austria, the University of Lincoln, UK, the University of York, York, and theUniversity of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, report:

The present study investigated the ability of the tortoise to learn a spatial task in which the response required was simply to touch a stimulus presented in a given position on a touchscreen…. Four red-footed tortoises learned to operate the touchscreen apparatus… The results show that red-footed tortoises are able to operate a touchscreen and can successfully solve a spatial two-choice task inthis apparatus….

Four juvenile red-footed tortoises (Chelonoidiscarbonaria–formerly Geochelone) with plastron lengths of 13 cm(Esme), 13 cm (Molly), 12 cm (Quinn) and 11 cm (Emily), took part in the study. The tortoises’ sex was unknown, as unambiguous sexual dimorphism develops only later in the life of this species.


Progress in Automatic Flirtation Detection

July 29th, 2014

“Detecting human social meaning is a difficult task for automatic conversational understanding systems.” – explain a research team [pictured] based at Stanford University, who have investigated the viabilities of an automatic flirtation detector.


“Our flirtation detection system uses prosodic, dialogue, and lexical features to detect a speaker’s intent to flirt with up to 71.5% accuracy [...]”

The high figures suggest that their system can predict flirtation intention even better than people can – humans can only manage to predict flirtation intention with 56.2% accuracy – it’s claimed.

See: Ranganath, Rajesh, Dan Jurafsky and Daniel A. McFarland, 2009. “It’s Not You, It’s Me: Detecting Flirting and Its Misperception in Speed-Dates.” Empirical Methods on Natural Language Processing (EMNLP, 2009, Singapore). Session 3A (Theatre): ‘Discourse and Dialogue’.

Also see: Development of the Flirting Styles Inventory (2010)

Note: Previous academic work on automatic detection of human social intentions via speech analysis has focussed on annoyance, anger, sadness, or boredom [Ang et al., 2002; Lee and Narayanan, 2002; Liscombe et al., 2003], speaker characteristics such as charisma [Rosenberg and Hirschberg, 2005], personality features like extroversion or agreeability [Mairesse et al., 2007; Mairesse and Walker, 2008], speaker depression or stress [Rude et al., 2004; Pennebaker and Lay, 2002; Cohn et al., 2004], and dating willingness or liking [Madan et al., 2005; Pentland, 2005] ).

To deal with climate change… make people smaller

July 29th, 2014

liaoThe plan to engineer a shorter, smaller human race to cope with climate change is almost as big and bold as the schemes of people working to convince themselves climate change won’t affect them.

The plan, at this point still sketchy, has three engineers. S Matthew Liao [pictured here] is a professor of bioethics at New York University. Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache are fellows who study ethics at the University of Oxford. The trio launched their “be-littler” idea in a paper called “Human engineering and climate change“, in 2012 in the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment.

—So begins another Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

BONUS [unrelated]: “Schoolgirl ‘beheaded classmate because she wanted to dissect someone’

Sexual appliances have subclass, says the Patent Office

July 28th, 2014

“SEXUAL APPLIANCE” is the official name of the US Patent and Trademark Office’s Class 600, Subclass 38Class 600, the broad-ranging general class of which Subclass 38 is a mere part, is for inventions that, in the view of the patent office, have to do with “SURGERY”.

Innovation, as seen by the Patent Office, does not happen willy-nilly. Innovation happens in the real world. In the real world, there are always constraints….

—so begins another Improbable Innovation nugget, which appears in its entirety on BetaBoston.

Body Composition of Spanish Soccer Referees, Analyzed

July 28th, 2014

The scholarly journal Measurement and Control published a study about a certain class of persons who measure and control the activities of a certain other class of persons:

Body Composition in Spanish Soccer Referees.” J.A. Casajus, A. Matute-Llorente, H. Herrero, and A. González-Agüero, Measurement and Control, vol. 47, no. 6 (2014): 178-184. (Thanks to investigator John Pullin for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at the University of Zaragoza and the Royal Spanish Football Federation, report:

[We examined the] body fat of elite Spanish soccer referees and assistant referees by division, role and age group. Participants were 243 males (age 32.4 ± 5.3 years, weight 72.3 ± 6.2 kg, height 179.1 ± 5.9 cm and body mass index 22.5 ± 1.4) who belonged to the Referees Technical Committee of the Royal Spanish Soccer Federation…. they were divided into three age groups as previously described by Castagna: young (Y, 27–32 years, n = 144), average (A, 33–38 years, n = 66) and senior (S, 39–45 years, n = 33)…. These results showed that first- and second-B-division referees presented more healthy values of %BF than first- and second-division assistants. By age group, Y group had the lowest %BF.

BONUS: Playing (not bodily) statistics of the player who in his day, when playing seven years for the Real Zaragoza team. was known as Casajús (real full name: José Antonio Casajús Mallén).