Into the uncanny valley#

While the purpose of Mori's [1974] paper[, The Buddha in the Robot: A Robot Engineer's Thoughts on Science and Religion,] was to inform robot design, in a concluding paragraph he cannot resist offering his own theory about the origins of the uncanny valley. He writes: "When we die, we fall into the trough of the uncanny valley. Our body becomes cold, our color changes, and movement ceases." Human models fall into the uncanny valley because they remind us of death. "It may be important to our self-preservation," he concludes. […]

But all along Mori hasn't seen our avoidance of death as a consequence of repressed emotions the way Freud did. Instead he has understood it to be a mechanism we developed to keep ourselves safe. Nearly every hypothesis since has had this flavor. It has been suggested, for instance, that we avoid almost human figures because their peculiarities make them look sick, and we have developed an evolutionary mechanism for steering clear of pathogens. Another theory posits that we avoid figures with features slightly off from our own because they appear to be less-than-ideal mating material.

Ghazanfar rejects all of these hypotheses. "What is really going on is much simpler," he says. He believes the uncanny valley response occurs because an animal--human or nonhuman--is evolutionarily inclined to develop an expectation of what members of its species should look like, a supremely important skill, as it lets the animal know with whom it can and cannot interact.

The new gadgets "page"

January 26, 2010

A few weeks ago I linked to my new gadgets "page" (really it's nothing more than a widget) on Twitter and figured I probably should do so here given that the original gadgets page played such a prominent role on this site, albeit some time ago. The truth is, it became a rather large chore to continuously update the page, and once I decided I wanted it to encompass more than just phones and PDAs, it was clear that the page would be all but impossible to maintain. (I buy tons of gadgets and was cataloging each of their technical specifications; it was total insanity.)

Enter GDGT. When I first got wind of the site my immediate thought was, "Woah! Hopefully I finally can ‘outsource' the gadgets page to someone else, and take advantage of thousands of others who, collectively, have the time to punch in all of the critical data for each device." Fortunately, the site/service turned out to be exactly that, and from here on out it's where I'm keeping track of all this stuff.

Their database already contains a large portion of my older gear (but not everything; for example, it's missing nine mobile phones of mine, which I may add myself at some point), and newer gadgets almost always are there when I go looking for them. The best part about the whole system is that adding a device to my "have," "had" or "want" list takes just two clicks, which is infinitely easier than what I was doing before when I was trying to keep up with everything myself (including pictures!).

(I realize all of this means little to most, but in the off-chance you're interested in what hardware I'm currently using or have used in the past, the new page should sate you. Please try to contain your excitement.)

Horizontal and vertical: The evolution of evolution#

Darwin's explanation of evolution, [Woese and Goldenfeld] argue, even in its sophisticated modern form, applies only to a recent phase of life on Earth.

At the root of this idea is overwhelming recent evidence for horizontal gene transfer - in which organisms acquire genetic material "horizontally" from other organisms around them, rather than vertically from their parents or ancestors. The donor organisms may not even be the same species. […]

In the Darwinian model, evolutionary change occurs because individuals with genes associated with successful traits are more likely to pass these on to the next generation. In horizontal gene transfer, by contrast, change is not a function of the individual or of changes from generation to generation, but of all the microbes able to share genetic material. […]

For the researchers the conclusion is inescapable: the genetic code must have arisen in an earlier evolutionary phase dominated by horizontal gene transfer.

How the brain filters out distracting thoughts to focus on a single bit of information#

We investigated how gamma waves in particular were involved in communication across cell groups in the hippocampus. What we found could be described as a radio-like system inside the brain. The lower frequencies are used to transmit memories of past experiences, and the higher frequencies are used to convey what is happening where you are right now."

The importance of engineering motivation into artificial intelligence#

We all know that intelligence, as commonly defined, isn't enough to impact the world all by itself. The ability to pursue a goal doggedly against obstacles, ignoring the grimness of reality (sometimes even to the point of delusion—i.e., against intelligence), is also important.

C'etait un rendezvous#

From Slate:

A 1978 short film by New Wave director Claude Lelouch may be the most thrilling single piece of driving ever filmed. The director, who had no permits to film or to stop traffic, hooked a camera to the front bumper of a Mercedes-Benz (in the only bit of film trickery, the sound of the motor was played by a five-speed Ferrari) and filmed the entire movie in a single cinema-verite take: He drove through the streets of Paris at five in the morning, through red lights, around the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs-Elysees, against one-way traffic, over sidewalks, at speeds up to 140 miles per hour.

This will blow your mind, car enthusiast or not.


All of the proceeds from the listed software sold today — the 20th — will be donated to Haiti. It's an incredible collection of applications, of which I use daily the following: Birdfeed, Default Folder X, Ego, Instapaper Pro, MarsEdit and Tweetie.

Buy something.

Instapaper's Kindle feature dramatically improved#

I'm very happy to announce the result of a lot of work that dramatically improves the Kindle edition of Instapaper: periodical formatting. […]

Tapping left or right on the [joy]stick… quickly switches to the previous or next articles, respectively. No more moving the cursor through the page for navigation links.

Nice. This takes care of one of the two things I've been clamoring for, and makes reading Instapaper'd articles on the Kindle much more practical (and much less annoying).


Cinch gives you simple, mouse-driven window management by defining the left, right, and top edges of your screen as ‘hot zones'... Cinching to the left or right edges of the screen will resize the window to fill exactly half the screen... Cinching to the top edge of the screen will resize the window to fill the entire screen (fullscreen). Dragging a window away from its cinched position will restore the window to its original size.

It's a beautiful thing.