News for Nerds - October 28, 2011

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 10/28/2011 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - October 28, 2011

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we take a closer look at the latest robot to one-up human competitors, we get to the bottom of why all computer voices are female, and we present further evidence for the case of Mind over Matter. But first: Monday is Halloween (and Sunday is the Halloween Hustle), so we might as well start there.

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Researchers at Cal State Los Angeles have been studying scary movies recently -- specifically, what it is about horror films that we find so appealing -- and the answers have a lot to do with human psychology.

Their research builds on work that began back in 1995, when a study showed that people who rated higher on a scale of sensation-seeking tended to be drawn to horror films. From that jumping-off point, Dr. Stuart Fischoff and his team at Cal State have learned some interesting things about scary movies and the people who seek them out.

One obvious bit of information is that if the audience for these movies tends to be 'sensation-seekers', that's really just a fancy way of saying 'young people'. As we grow older and grow more sensitive to our own physiology, our need for intense external stimuli fades. As Dr. Fischoff says, "Older people have stimulation fatigue. Life's real horrors scare them."

But for movie studios, that's no big deal. It's teenagers that buy movie tickets, as evidenced by the $54 million that Paranormal Activity 3 made at the box office last weekend (on a reported $8 million budget).

Another interesting tidbit is that the stronger the negative emotions like fear and anxiety are during the movie, the more likely people are to report enjoying the movie afterward. In that sense, distress and delight are correlated. The relief you feel at being able to walk out of the theater is greater if you've been scared out of your mind while you were eating your popcorn.

And then there's the theory that we appreciate a good scary movie because, deep down, we appreciate the genre's strict adherence to a Victorian moral code. Even in the face of extreme gore and high body counts, good generally triumphs over evil, and there's a predictability to how things are going to end.

As long as the box-office receipts continue to pile up, the only thing more predictable than how these movies end is that there will be hundreds more coming soon.

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Here's one more Halloween-related story for you. Researchers at Yale University found that the number of babies born drops dramatically on Halloween -- but that it rises on Valentine's Day.

Most surprisingly, it isn't just scheduled deliveries or C-sections that make up for the difference in birth rates. Spontaneous births are affected, too, leading experts to believe that moms do have some control over when they go into labor.

Yale's Becca Levy and her team used birth certificate data to look at the timing of births taking place one week before, and one week after, both Valentine's Day and Halloween from 1996 to 2006. They chose these particular holidays because while both have strong emotional connotations, neither is a major enough holiday to affect hospital staffing.

They found that on Valentine's Day, the likelihood of giving birth went up by 5 percent compared with the weeks immediately before and after. C-section births were 12 percent more likely, which suggests that some mothers may have planned for a Valentine's Day birth. But spontaneous births were up nearly 4 percent as well.

Halloween, however, saw a dip in births by more than 11 percent.

Levy's study seems to give credence to the idea that the mind can play a powerful role in controlling hormones. Previous studies have provided mixed evidence about just how much influence human will can exert over the body, such as when terminally ill patients 'hang on for the holidays'.

Everyone involved seems to agree that more research is needed to get to the bottom of these issues, but in the meantime, don't expect a big crowd in the maternity ward at your local hospital on Monday.

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Shifting gears, have you ever noticed that most computer voices tend to be female?

When Apple released the new iPhone this month, a lot of attention was paid to Siri, the 'virtual assistant' who can help you get directions, check the weather, and all sorts of other helpful tasks. You see, Siri's voice is distinctly female (at least in the U.S., but more on that in a minute).

Come to think of it, the voices on your GPS, your home alarm system, and your voicemail are all probably female, too. Why is that?

One simple answer is: biology. Studies show that people generally find women's voices more pleasing than men's, and many scientists believe that this phenomenon begins in the womb, where fetuses have been shown to respond to their mother's voice but not their fathers. (Ironically, that trend has a way of inverting somewhere around their 13th birthday.)

Another answer is: history. In World War II, navigation devices in airplane cockpits were female so that they stood out among all the male voices. Telephone operators, dating back to the invention of such a job, have always been primarily women. Voice prompts in cars, starting with "your door is ajar" in the 1980s, are overwhelmingly female.

One notable exception to this rule is that it does not necessarily hold true in other countries. Take Germany, for instance. In the late 1990s, BMW was forced to recall a female-voiced navigation system on its 5 series cars after getting flooded with calls from German men saying that they refused to take directions from a woman.

There are about 11 easy jokes that are just dangling there, begging to be explored, but I'm not going to do that. I prefer to work a little harder for my humor. Let's move along.

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Finally, I give you one more story of how man is quickly being overtaken by machine.

CubeStormer II, a robot built out of LEGOs and powered by an Android smartphone, has set a new world record by solving a Rubik's Cube in just 5.352 seconds. You can watch video of it right here.

It's worth noting that the previous holder of the world record was an Australian man, Feliks Zemdegs, who managed the feat in a still-amazing 5.66 seconds. Let me say that again: he solved a Rubik's Cube in 5.66 seconds.

But that's all just a memory now, as CubeStormer II has entrenched itself in the record books for the time being. Built from four LEGO Mindstorm NXT kits, CubeStormer is powered by a custom Android app which does the actual solving by employing a specially-developed algorithm to create a solution that's optimized for the solver's gripping mechanism.

And get this. Human solvers like Feliks Zemdegs get to study the cube before beginning to solve it. But the 5.352 seconds it took CubeStormer II to crack the code? That includes the time it took to look the Cube over, snap pictures of each side, and then begin solving.

If you're looking for a last-minute Halloween costume, I hope you're focused on the LEGO robot. Because let's face it: dressing up like Feliks Zemdegs is so last year.

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That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month! And please send any juicy News for Nerds tips to me right here!

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