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Watching Chicago, a housework robot, golfers don't think Add to ...

Watching Chicago

"In less than a decade and with little opposition, [Chicago]has linked thousands of cameras - on street poles and skyscrapers, aboard buses and in train tunnels - in a network covering most of the city," Associated Press reports. "Officials can watch video live at a sprawling emergency command centre, police stations and even some squad cars. … Even London - widely considered the world's most closely watched city with an estimated 500,000 cameras - doesn't incorporate private cameras in its system as Chicago does."

A housework robot

"At last, scientists have designed a robot that really can help with the housework," The Daily Telegraph reports. "The good news is that PR2 does a great job folding towels. The bad news is that he takes 25 minutes to do each one. While housewives may feel distinctly unimpressed with the achievement, the machine's efforts are regarded as an important breakthrough in robotics. Until now, robots have been designed to do complex but repetitive work, such as building cars on assembly lines, where everything they deal with is the same shape and size. The struggle has been to build models that can understand how to handle objects they have never seen before, and which have an unpredictable shape. After painstaking research, a team from the University of California, Berkeley, came up with a computer program to give PR2 the brains for the job. In a test he managed to sort out piles of towels of different sizes, colours and materials."

See what I've bought

"Somewhere in America's suburbs, 16-year-old Blair sits in her pink-walled bedroom and shows off a slew of recent purchases," Marisa Meltzer writes for Slate.com. The adolescent taped them via webcam and posted the video to YouTube. "She's not just posting it for her clique at school - her video has nearly 600,000 views to date. Online videos like Blair's are known as 'hauls.' They involve mostly young women showing off the fruits of shopping trips. … [The haulers]resemble the popular girls at any high school, which is precisely why they are so appealing to other teens."

Can we help teens think?

"Being a teenager is a drag," says New Scientist magazine. "As if dealing with peer pressure and raging hormones weren't tough enough, learning new things also gets harder. Now a molecule that causes this learning deficit has been found in mice - and blocked. During puberty, learning a language, navigating around a new location and detecting errors in tests get harder. Sheryl Smith and colleagues at the State University of New York reckon this could be due to a temporary increase in a receptor molecule that inhibits activity in a brain area key to some types of learning. Previously, her team showed that levels of this receptor soar in pubertal mice. … If a similar mechanism underlies the learning deficits experienced by teenage humans, it could lead to ways to improve learning."

Golfers don't think

"After golfers have learned how to putt - once they have memorized the necessary movements - analyzing the stroke is a dangerous waste of time," Jonah Lehrer writes for The Wall Street Journal. "[Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago]has found, for instance, that when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly worse shots. All those conscious thoughts erase their years of practice; the grace of talent disappears. 'We bring expert golfers into our lab, we tell them to pay attention to a particular part of their swing, and they just screw up,' Ms. Beilock says. 'When you are at a high level, your skills become somewhat automated. You don't need to pay attention to every step in what you're doing.' "

Humans defined, again

"What is it, exactly that distinguishes us from other species?" Michael Webber blogs for Earth Magazine. "The definition of humankind has perplexed scientists, philosophers and theorists for centuries. DNA composition differentiates species in a technical sense, but that definition is hardly satisfying. Certainly there must be something more ethereal that separates us from 'lower' forms of creatures. Over the centuries, several definitions have emerged - from using tools to speaking - but have then been proven insufficient in some heuristic way. So I propose another option: manipulating energy. … [H]mans are the only species that will specifically manipulate energy from one form to another - for example, converting chemical energy (fuels) to thermal energy (heat) or mechanical energy (motion). And, thus, a new definition of humanity is born: Humans intentionally manipulate energy."

Thought du jour

"It is true that we emerged in the universe by chance, but the idea of chance is itself only a cover for our ignorance. The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming."

- Freeman Dyson

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