I’ve recently been interested in the subject of unanticipated or unintended consequences. Most of my interest has been fueled by a sense that arguments of the “nobody could have predicted this massive, now-obvious consequence of actions I took” type are becoming more popular: think how often they’ve been deployed in the aftermath of the Iraq war, the financial meltdown, Deepwater Horizon, etc..
Of course, unanticipated consequences can be good things too, as I noticed this morning. We recently bought a new vacuum cleaner, one of the bagless cyclonic kinds with the transparent canister. I mainly liked the fact that there were no bags, and that it was less than 20 years old. But my kids turn out to really like too: so much so, in fact, that they’re actually cleaning their rooms when friends come over.
Why? Because as they vacuum their rooms, the canister turns into a “tornado of grossness,” as one of my son’s friends put it.
Making the canister transparent turns vacuuming into entertainment– and because it combines technology, loud noises, visual effects, and gross stuff, it’s irresistable to young boys.
I have no idea if the designers have kids, but: well done.
[To the tune of Rob Dougan, “Furious Angels,” from the album Furious Angels (a 3-star song, imo).]
While at first it looks like nothing more than a mix of two entertainment genres that were best left unconnected– namely, elementary school skits and Web video– it’s actually wonderfully subversive at times. The Charles Beard shout-out (at 1:01) makes the whole thing worthwhile, and the First Thanksgiving is just incredible.
[To the tune of Sting, “History Will Teach Us Nothing,” from the album Nothing Like The Sun (a 2-star song, imo).]
Interesting new research indicates that babies and dogs share a dependence on social cues in learning (or being led astray). As Ed Yong explains:
Like infants less than a year old, dogs fail at a seemingly easy exercise called the “object permanence task”. It goes like this: if you hide an object somewhere(say a ball under a cup) and let the baby retrieve it a few times, they will continue to search for it there even if you hide it somewhere else (say behind the sofa) and even if you do so in front of their eyes. Piaget, the legendary psychologist who discovered this behaviour, thought that it reflected a wildly different way of seeing the world.
More recently, Jozsef Topal suggested that it’s the influence of the adult experimenter that’s the key. By repeatedly pointing at the ball in the first hiding place, the adult enshrines a generalised rule in the infant’s mind. And infants, being programmed to learn from communicative signals, come to believe the adult’s instructions over the evidence of their own eyes (some people apparently never grow out of this, but I digress). Topal demonstrated this by showing that infants were much better at the task if the experimenters avoided social cues like calling the child’s name or eye contact.
And the same is true for domestic dogs. Topal tested a dozen adult dogs with a version of the hidden-object challenge, concealing toy behind one of two possible screens. If he called to the dogs by name, made eye contact and waved, the animals made the same errors that infants make on 75% of the trials. Without any of these signals, their scores improved and they only failed to realise the ball’s new location on 39% of the trials. Their error rate dropped even lower in completely non-social situations, where the ball was moved by pulling on a transparent string…. [S]ome scientists have suggested that these [social] skills are adaptations that have developed over the last 10,000 years to allow dogs to better interact with their two-legged partners.
Interestingly, if you do the same experiment with wolves, they’re not fooled: when Topal “tested 10 wolves that had extensive experience with humans, they passed with flying colours regardless of whether their human partners were gesturing and calling, standing impassively or entirely absent. “
[To the tune of David Bowie, “This Is Not America,” from the album Bowie at the Beeb: Best Of BBC Radio 68-72 (I give it 3 stars).]
This mashup of Pat the Bunny and a physics textbook is really brilliant. I’ve finally found the perfect children’s gift for all my friends! (Though it doesn’t look like it comes with an Enrico Fermi stuffie, alas.)