Holidays are coming!

The title of this article is a reference to the historic Coca-Cola advert. Whilst I’m not sure I’d class it as the Christmas season yet, it’s pretty clear that retailers think it is.

Coca-Cola Christmas trucks

The Coca-Cola Christmas ad – what isn’t Christmassy about HGV’s driving through the countryside?

Here in the UK, many shops have had Christmas stock on sale for over a month now, only taking it down for a brief interlude to replace it with Halloween and bonfire night stock. In just over two weeks, it’s the infamous Black Friday, which is meant to be when the Christmas shopping rush really gets started.

One of the key moments in British Christmas is now when the main Christmas advertisements start showing. I’ve yet to see the iconic Coca-Cola ad, but last Friday saw the launch of the festive John Lewis ad.

Over the last decade, John Lewis’s Christmas adverts have become rather famous and somewhat of a seasonal event. Each year the public sceptically awaits the ad to see if it’s going to better last years. This year’s tells the heart-warming (as always!) story of a little girl and an elderly man who lives on the moon.

This years attracted the usual attention. #ManOnTheMoon was the number one trending topic in the UK for most of ads release day (last Friday) and it was instantly parodied. Here are some of my favourites.

Firstly a Royal Mail undeliverable note.

What about The Martian, Matt Damon?

Maybe if the little girl had seen the film Up…

So the real question is: is this excitement just retailers trying to encourage us to spend more money? I’m not sure many people would argue in favour of Black Friday being an event that spreads Christmas cheer, but is there anything wrong with a festive advert pulling at your heart strings?

Genuine happiness creation, or just a clever marking ploy?

P.S Next time you’re in a food retailer, why not ask an assistant if they have any Christmas spirit in stock!

Don’t Like Me (you give your personality away)


Likes and Dislikes

I know what I like, and I know what I don’t like, but the problem is so does everyone else. Who would have thought that just liking something on Facebook could be so important. Recent research seems to show that studying what you have liked can tell more about your personality than you would imagine.

University researchers have just published a study (read it here) called “Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans”. They claim that what you ‘like’ on Facebook gives away your personality, to the point that a computer program can gauge your responses to questions better than your friends can.

Well how can that be? Judging personality is a honed social skill, but their research based on just over 86000 volunteers and their friends’ responses seems to prove the theory that computers can do it better with just information about what you like via Facebook.

As the researchers say in their report, “Computers outpacing humans in personality judgment presents significant opportunities and challenges in the areas of psychological assessment, marketing, and privacy”.

Predicting Personality

Their findings show that with a sample of 100 likes, the computer can outperform your friends in predicting your answers to the questions of a standard personality test. Obviously the more likes the computer has, the better it performs, so this means that every like has its place, tells a story, guides a narrative, and defines the computers definition of who you are.

So if you like certain types of things, your personality is likely to reflect this. If you like dancing and having a sun tan, you are probably extrovert, if you like Salvador Dali you are probably open to experience and more adventurous with your lifestyle choices, you get the picture? This leads to the machine being able to better predict if you will deviate from social norms or stay within them, experiment or not.

Well if a computer can determine that I am (as we all know after the brain electrocuting experiments) open to experience, then that could possibly be used to market stuff to me, to guess how I might live my life in terms of personal choices (including health risk), and to put me into a little box for insurance or job hunting purposes. They are better at predicting life outcomes than my friends. This is serious!

Obviously computer power will massively increase in the future, and we will no doubt see the development of automated personality assessment tools. How they will be used is anybody and everybody’s guess, and all they need is for us all to continue to give all of this free data away to Facebook.

Anyway, if you are interested, I don’t like Dali, or Iggy Pop, or the KLF Arts Foundation, and only listen to Beethoven, I don’t use Tor and I drive a Skoda. I must have the perfect personality for any highly paid and respectable job. Find me on Linkedin, I don’t use Facebook.


Facebook’s Social Research Experiment

Facebook are back in the news again, this time for conducting research without the consent of their users. Although maybe that is a false statement, users may well have signed those rights away without realizing too.

All Facebook did was to “deprioritizing a small percentage of content in News Feed (based on whether there was an emotional word in the post) for a group of people (about 0.04% of users, or 1 in 2500) for a short period (one week, in early 2012). Nobody’s posts were “hidden,” they just didn’t show up on some loads of Feed. Those posts were always visible on friends’ timelines, and could have shown up on subsequent News Feed loads”. This is the explanation offered by the author of the report about the experiment. Read the full text here.

Simply speaking they wanted to adjust the type of information a user was exposed to to see if it effected their mood. So if a user receives lots of positive news, what will happen to them? What will they post about?

Some studies have suggested that lots of Facebook use tends to lead to people feeling bad about themselves. The logic is simple, all my friends post about how great their lives are and about the good side we might say. I who have a life that has both ups and downs are not exposed to the downs, so I feel that I am inadequate.

This sounds reasonable. I am not a Facebook user but the odd messages I get are rarely about arguing with partners, tax problems, getting locked out of the house, flat tyres, missed meetings or parking tickets. I presume Facebook users do not suffer from these issues, they always seem to be smiling.

So in order to test the hypothesis a little manipulation of the news feed. More positive or more negative words, and then look to see how the posts are effected. The theory above does not seem to hold water as a statistic however, although bearing in mind the methodology etc (and the conductor) I take the claims with a pinch of salt. More positive words tend to lead to more positive posts in response.

Hardly rocket science we might say.

I have a degree in sociology, an MA in Applied Social research and work in the field. Conducting experiments of this type is not allowed in professional circles, it is considered unethical, there is no informed consent, rights are infringed upon and the list goes on. What if somebody did something serious during the experiment?

Of course “The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product”.

If readers are interested in looking at a few other fun experiments that might be considered ethically dubious I can offer a few. Check out the Stanley Milgram experiment, where people administered (False) electric shocks to other people who got the answers to their questions wrong. Yale University here, not a fringe department of Psychology. Researchers were investigating reactions to authority, and the results are very interesting, but you couldn’t do it today.

Or how about the so-called Monster study. The Monster Study was a stuttering experiment on 22 orphan children in Davenport, Iowa, in 1939 conducted by Wendell Johnson at the University of Iowa. After placing the children in control and experimental groups, Research Assistant Mary Tudor gave positive speech therapy to half of the children, praising the fluency of their speech, and negative speech therapy to the other half, belittling the children for every speech imperfection and telling them they were stutterers. Many of the normal speaking orphan children who received negative therapy in the experiment suffered negative psychological effects and some retained speech problems during the course of their life. The University of Iowa publicly apologized for the Monster Study in 2001.

Terrible as these experiments may sound, they were conducted in the name of science. Their results may have proved useful. Facebopok (along with 23andME and other commercial entities) are behaving in the way they are because they want to make more money, their interest is solely there (even if they dress it up as better user experience). And in the case of Facebook they have access to 1.3 billion users, and mandate to do whatever they like with them.

Yawn Free Coffee


EDITOR NOTE: This is Jonny’s 100th post From his humble beginnings writing about elective amputation, Jonny has taken Technology Bloggers by storm! Jonny started as a contributor, soon after earning himself author status and he has recently been awarded editor status. Congratulations and thank you from me and the rest of the community Jonny, you deserve it. Here is to the next 100! 😉 – note by Christopher

Oh I am rather tired this morning, like many others. I need to have my daily coffee. Sometimes I imagine a world where my surroundings understand me, my needs and wishes. I had a teas-maid once, that was the closest I ever came to automated good life, but times have moved on.

Face recognition software offers the dream of a newly serviced life. And the dream is here already, well not here exactly but in South Africa.

Yes coffee producer Dowe Egberts have built a coffee machine that uses a camera and software that can read your face. When it sees a person yawn it automatically produces a free cup of coffee for them. Check out this video on Youtube. Or get a free coffee by yawning next time you pass through the O.R. Tambo International Airport.

This is of course all done for publicity, but it does open up a train of thought that leads into science fiction.

This is not my first post about face recognition software. I wrote one earlier this year about Verizon’s project to fit it to TV top cable boxes, and the year before about mobile recognition apps, and since then there have been a few developments that I would like readers to note.

Researchers have been working on identifying individual animals using the same software. Cameras are often used to count wildlife in studies, but the problem often arises of determining which animals may have been counted twice. This problem could be overcome if the software could recognize the individual beasts, and scientists at Leipzig zoo have been working on such a project.

Do you know this one?

Do you know this one?

They have 24 chimpanzees to work with, and have designed a system that recognizes individual animals with up to 83% accuracy. The difficulty is getting good photos in the wild though, and in dim light the accuracy quickly drops, so the researchers have been designing new parameters to improve broader recognition.

Check out the article here to learn more.

On a slightly less positive note Facebook are again at the helm of recognition privacy. Once again, proposed changes to its privacy policy mean that already uploaded information is to be used differently.

Facebook has indicated that it will now reserve the right to add user profile pictures to its facial recognition database. Currently, only photos that a Facebook friend uploads and tags with a user’s name go into the facial recognition system. By opting out of the tag suggesting feature and declining to allow friends to tag him or her, a user can avoid being included in the social network’s facial recognition database.

No More might this be the case!

The change would mean that every user, of a population of a billion, whose face is visible in his or her profile photo would be included in the database. To sidestep the new feature, users will have to avoid showing their faces in their profile photos and delete any previous profile photos in which their faces are visible.

Facebook have however had problems implementing their recognition policies in Europe, and in fact the system was turned off in August of last year, but the new regulations seem to be another attempt at opening the door. See this article for a review of the arguments.

Regardless of whether you as an individual take these precaution, millions will not, and the database will grow massively overnight. And that will be worth a lot of money to somebody somewhere down the line, and have implications for all of us.