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The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

Conflict-Resolving Technology

Posted April 22, 2017 12:00 AM by M-ReeD

There are few things you can count on in life. Something that can be counted on: conflict with your significant other. Some might argue that it isn’t a true relationship unless you have fantasized about taking the life of your significant other.

For better or worse, the people at USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Dornsife College of Arts, Letters and Sciences are threatening to deprive us of that small pleasure using advancements in technology.

The researchers envision “de-escalating” conflict in relationships with the use of technology. If the researchers are successful, you might receive a heads-up in the form of a text message that your significant other has had a bad day. Or, you could receive a message suggesting that you meditate to improve your mood before your significant other comes home. The goal would be to give time to respond accordingly in the moments before a possible conflict erupts. The heads-up might give couples a way to reframe or temper reactions to potential conflict.

That is exactly what researchers hope will be possible in the not-so-distant future, which is why they are taking the first steps toward the development of this technology by creating conflict-detection algorithms that determine if a conflict has occurred between spouses.

In order to detect the presence of conflict, researchers measured participants’ heart activity, body temperature, sweat, audio recordings, assessment of language content, and vocal intensity. Those “biosignals” were measured with devices such as wearables and mobile phones to determine biological changes in the presence of conflict. Based on a review of the participants’ reports of when conflict actually occurred, the researchers declared the algorithm to be 86 percent accurate in its ability to detect conflict.

So while this idea is in its infancy, it is the goal of the researchers to eventually detect oncoming conflict by measuring the biosignals that would trigger the heads-up text message. Additionally, researchers anticipate that the technology will be useful in mediating other relationships (i.e., parent–child relationships).

So while we wait on this technology to advance, we can continue to fight with our significant others in the time-tested, old-fashioned ways: by slamming stuff, grumbling audibly under our breath, and imagining their slow and painful demise.

Would you use a device alerting you to your significant other’s mood? Or do you prefer the element of surprise?

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25 comments; last comment on 04/25/2017
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Is Live Streaming "Broadcasting"?

Posted April 18, 2017 12:00 AM by Hannes

Late last month, news site Gründerszene reported that Germany’s Kommission für Zulassung und Aufsicht (ZAK) der Landesmedienanstalten [roughly, the Commission for Admission and Supervision for the State Media Office] demanded that popular streaming channel PietSmietTV pay between €1,000 and €10,000 for a broadcasting license. For those not in the know, which includes me before I heard this news, Twitch is essentially a live streaming site focused on video gaming.

Like many online streaming channels on Twitch, YouTube and similar sites, PietSmiet mostly streams video game playthroughs and personal thoughts on current events. The ZAK invoked a law requiring that any German broadcaster reaching more than 500 people hold a license, and classified Twitch as a Rundfunkangebot [broadcasting service]. The law is essentially in place to prevent TV broadcasters from transmitting without a license, so the State Media Office more or less turned it inside out in order to demand PietSmiet’s licensing.

Peter Smits, who founded and runs PietSmiet, probably has little to worry about personally. His is one of the most popular German-language video game channels, and his YouTube clips hit the 100 or 200K visitor mark within hours of posting, so PietSmiet likely drives serious revenue through ads and subscriber donations. But live streaming communities are up in arms at what they see as invoking outdated legislation to make a little cash on what’s essentially free, unlicensed content. Even the State Media Office admitted that the law doesn’t make much sense and might be changed in the future, so their actions might be a one-off anyway.

Fair or not, retroactively requiring licenses for unregulated broadcasting has some precedents. In the early 1900s, for example, amateur radio broadcasting was all the rage. But as more and more broadcasters took to the airwaves their signals began overlapping, leading to the 1927 Radio Act requiring licenses for frequency bands and eventually to the creation of the FCC. Classifying streaming as broadcasting could be pointing the way to more centralized management and oversight of what’s now essentially a wide-open landscape.

The streaming-as-broadcasting issue sheds light on issues around gatekeeping and cash flow around the more or less unregulated internet. Compare the internet to cable TV, in which content is provided by a network, which is then bid on by a cable company and packaged for a subscriber fee. Internet services are controlled and monetized by ISPs, but with free wi-fi existing almost everywhere the internet could now be thought of as the new broadcast TV, freely available to anyone with an antenna. The role of online streamers in this scheme is still murky. But if any government tries to enforce a license on a streaming channel reaching over 500 people (a tiny population in an online environment), a lot of non-monetized channels will go down quickly without much of a fight.

It remains to be seen whether Germany’s media office will follow through on its demands, and whether it will expand its reach to require other channels to obtain licenses. Given the firehose-like nature of data on the internet, it’s unlikely that they’re trying to limit bandwidth, and perhaps more likely that they’re just trying to make a little cash off a popular channel. Or maybe it’s just another attempt by mainstream media providers to put the slightest damper on the massive stream of free online content.

Image credit: Tom Sundstrom / CC BY-ND 2.0

26 comments; last comment on 04/25/2017
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How Music Affects Productivity

Posted April 14, 2017 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

My best days are when I’m so in the zone that I don’t even hear the music in my headphones anymore. But does the music really help me be more productive? Is it the type of music I’m listening to that’s helping or hurting? What kind of music should I listen to (or not listen to) for maximum productivity?

Research on music and productivity all support the idea that it’s work first, music second. Music shouldn’t be the main focus during a productive session because we only have so much attention to give at any one time. While there is a significant amount of research on music and productivity, the research conflicts in opinion, was poorly designed, and is not summarized in a way that gives the precise effect music has on our workplace performance.

Here are five consistent ideas that showed up in the research:

1. Our limited attention. Music, and background noise such as in a coffee shop, does consume some of our attention. Listening to music makes you feel more productive because it stimulates your brain to release more dopamine—but, overall, you accomplish less as you listen because the song you’re listening to occupies some of your limited attention. Even if the music is simple and calming, such as classical, it is still consuming your attention.

There are times when listening to music can help with productivity such as when you’re in a distracting office environment. But if your office is quiet or the coffee shop conversations fade into a hum…you’re better off without the music.

2. Habitual tasks. When you’re working on something that requires a lot of thought, music can be a distraction. However, music aids in the performance of repetitive and monotonous habitual tasks. This is because with habitual tasks, it’s easy to get bored so music can increase arousal and help you pay more attention to your work.

3. Music and mood. Music causes the brain to release more dopamine, a pleasure chemical that lifts mood and makes us feel happier. Listening to music during a work break is the best of both worlds because music enhances your mood and will lead you to perform better once you get back to work.

4. Familiarity is key. Research shows that we prefer and are less distracted by music we are familiar with. These songs boost our mood and brain activity more than unfamiliar tunes. Music doesn’t affect productivity directly, rather it affects our mood and energy, which in turn affects how productive we are.

5. Extroverts like to jam out. There is some research that shows that background distractions almost always impair the performance of introverts more than extroverts. The effect is moderate but not extreme and both types do take a performance hit.

Studies about music and productivity can be misleading. Someone who listened to music all day will almost always report being more productive than usual—not necessarily because they got more done, but because the music they listened to gave them more energy.

So the takeaways: if you’re going to listen to music, listen to songs you are familiar with, that are less complex, and turn it down when you really need to focus.

Do you listen to music while you work? What kind of music? Do you find it helpful or distracting?

28 comments; last comment on 04/19/2017
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Who's Heard of The Southern Ocean!?

Posted April 11, 2017 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: hydrography southern ocean

Last week, my 2nd-grade daughter had her first geography test on continents, oceans and compass points. I pulled up a blank world map online and quizzed her, and as I was closing my laptop she stopped me and said I’d missed an ocean. “No I didn’t—which one?” “The Southern Ocean,” she replied, vaguely gesturing toward the area between Australia and Antarctica. I was certain she was making it up, but sure enough her study guide had it labeled, and Wikipedia confirmed that there is indeed a Southern Ocean.

For whatever reason, I never learned about the Southern Ocean’s existence in school. And a cursory Google search proved that I’m not alone. A few news articles revealed that some secondary-school teachers—many of whom have recently been re-educated on hydrography by trainers—never learned about it either. After poking around a few more authoritative sites I began to realize that naming, delineating, and simply accepting bodies of water is more difficult than I’d thought.

According to NOAA, there is one global ocean divided into five geographical regions: the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic and Southern. The former three are the “major” defined oceans. The Southern Ocean was informally named during James Cook’s 1772 circumnavigational voyage, and the UK’s 1834 South Australia Act referred to the waters south of Australia by that name. The 1928 book Limits of Oceans and Seas basically defined it as the waters between Africa, Australia, Antarctica and New Zealand, but later editions of the same book removed the ocean altogether (essentially because it was hard to define) and extended the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans southward to cover the gap.

Contested oceans are disputed for a few different reasons. In the case of the Southern Ocean, Antarctica’s pack ice is constantly in flux, making the ocean’s limits impossible to pin down. Because oceans are also global bodies of water that border multiple countries, not all nations agree on an ocean’s limits or even its existence. The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), the publisher of Limits of Oceans and Seas, consists of 68 member countries and attempted to nail down the Southern Ocean’s naming and limits in 2000. Its voting members elected to retain the name “Southern Ocean” over “Antarctic Ocean” but could not agree on a northern limit.

The IHO issued the fourth edition of Limits of Oceans and Seas to its members in 2002, but sea naming disputes among member nations have kept it from official publication. The Southern Ocean’s official status remains a toss-up between nations and organizations—the United States and Encyclopaedia Britannica have recognized its existence since 2000 but the National Geographic Society hasn’t until quite recently, for example. The Southern Ocean problem isn’t the main one delaying the IHO’s publication, however: the heated squabbling between South Korea and Japan over the name of the body of water separating them is the primary point of concern for the IHO. Also, around 60 seas have been renamed since 2002 anyway, so even if the IHO agrees on any naming convention they’ll have to redo the edition altogether.

Maybe the IHO should end the madness and just call the whole thing Big Salty Water? That’d be my vote, anyway.

Image credit: Hogweard / CC BY-SA 3.0

52 comments; last comment on 04/17/2017
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Laughter Truly IS the Best Medicine

Posted April 10, 2017 10:42 AM by IronWoman

I’m sure several of you, like me, have heard that laughter is the best medicine. While it seems like a corny saying mainly heard in sentimental sitcoms – I’m looking at you, Full House; cut it out –, there have been studies conducted to prove the theory. Below is research claiming laughter improves a person’s mood, immune system, social skills, and more. Read on and be the guy who’s got jokes and is always good for a laugh!

On April 22, 2014, Yagana Shah wrote a piece on laughter in The Huffington Post. Shah states researchers at California’s Loma Linda University studied twenty adults, ages sixty to seventy, measuring stress levels and short term memory in two separate groups: one watching funny videos and the other doing nothing, both for twenty minutes. Once the time had passed, saliva samples were taken, and memory tests were administered, it was found that the humor group performed better with memory recall than did the boring group (43.6% v. 20.3%) and that the former showed lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in their blood streams. Vanderbilt University and the University of Maryland are also cited by Shah as analyzing the health benefits of laughter, VU conducting a study proving ten to fifteen minutes of laughter a day burns forty calories and UM concluding that a sense of humor can ward off heart disease.

In June 2014, National Geographic’s Susan Brink posted an article titled Is Laughter the Best Medicine? This piece, however, finds “thin science” to back up the age-old motto. According to Brink, “[m]ost [studies] rely on self-reported assessments [from the participants].” Moreover, Brink’s sources suggest that being around inappropriate or mean-spirited laughter actually increases one’s stress. That being said, Michael Miller – director of The Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University Medical Center in Baltimore, MD – conducted a study with twenty volunteers, two groups either given a sad or funny movie. The result was a 22% increase in blood flow for the funny group, while blood flow was actually restricted for those watching sad movies. Still, Miller states that you have to laugh out loud: a good belly laugh releases endorphins from the brain, sending nitric oxide into the blood vessels, ultimately widening those vessels while increasing blood flow, lessening inflammation, clumping, and cholesterol.

In September 2011, Phallab Ghosh’s BBC News article claimed that the chemicals released when laughing work as a natural painkiller. In a similar fashion to other researchers, the scientists proved that – by studying groups exposed to comedy v. boring shows – belly laughers were able to withstand 10% more pain than before the test, while those watching boring shows were less able than before to withstand pain. The analysts again stressed that only belly laughs were successful – those that empty the lungs and pain the stomach release the endorphins.

The Telegraph’s 2013 piece Now There’s Proof: Laughter Really is the Best Medicine touches on the same reasons for and evidence of the benefits of belly laughs. Author Sarah Rainey received testimonials from those involved in what is called the “Laughter Line,” a telephone exercise conducted by the UK Laughter Network, where several participants of varying age groups claim that laughing with one another over the phone once a week has helped them to de-stress, increase energy levels, and even avoid relapses from potentially debilitating diseases. This class, and other light-hearted activities such as Laughter Yoga, has proven to be a unique and successful form of exercise; UK’s Laughter Network is now celebrating thirteen years treating well over 8,000 people. Still, Lotte Mikkelson (founder of Laughter Line) wants to remind people that these activities are used as a method of coping, not a cure.

Overall, there is some truth in laughter being the best medicine; with the Mayo Clinic and Help Guide’s most recent articles on the subject (2016 and 2017), both discuss how laughter affects those sociologically. Not only does a chortle soothe tension and increase personal satisfaction, it also gives individuals the ability to deal with difficult situations, diffuse conflict, enhance teamwork, and connect with others, ideally becoming more focused and accomplished while releasing inhibitions.

So, how can you help yourself laugh a little more? It may be easier than you think. First, to develop a sense of humor researchers suggest remaining light-hearted and positive, avoiding negative thinking and learning to laugh at yourself. Laugh every day – acting like a child at times – and deal with stress head-on in an effective way. Second, surround yourself with playful people, cute animals (my personal go-to), and fun activities. But, as the Mayo Clinic urges, “[d]on’t laugh at the expense of others. Some forms of humor aren’t appropriate.” Lastly, partaking in a class such as Laughter Yoga or the Laughter Line may be just the prescription you need to turn that frown upside-down. Try it, pass it along, and let the good times R.O.F.L.!


The Huffington Post:

National Geographic:

BBC News:

The Telegraph:

Mayo Clinic:

Help Guide:

Laughter Yoga Homepage:

UK Laughter Network:

48 comments; last comment on 04/13/2017
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