5 Intriguing Things: Wednesday, 2/26

Big Ag Data, the birth of the rave, uncanny empathy, two flavors of sublime, and a history of Detroit in glass.
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1. Monsanto, DuPont, and Deere are stoked about big data.

"I see it as another potential transformation of the company," says Robert Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto, based in St. Louis. He helped develop Monsanto's first genetically modified seeds in the early 1980s. In November, Monsanto paid $930 million to acquire Climate Corp., a weather-data-mining company in San Francisco launched by former Google executives. Agricultural cooperative Land O'Lakes Inc. bought satellite-imaging specialist Geosys in December for an undisclosed amount.

"DuPont announced earlier this month a collaboration with a weather-and-market analysis firm, DTN/The Progressive Farmer, to provide real-time climate and market information to DuPont's data-services users.

"Late last year, Deere & Co. agreed to beam data from the Moline, Ill., company's green tractors, combines and other machinery to computer servers where DuPont and Dow Chemical Co. can formulate specialized seed-planting recommendations...

"DuPont and Monsanto are excited about their data-driven services, partly because they can be rolled out to farmers much faster than new seeds, which often must endure a decade of development and regulatory review."

 

2. The birth of the rave.

"Pickering saw it all from his vantage point in the DJ booth above the dancefloor: 'It was like a tidal wave across the club from their alcove. Suddenly everyone was on ecstasy. I could stop a record and put my hands in the air, and the place would erupt.' Ecstasy also affected what people wore. 'It's quite endearing looking back now,' says DJ Dave Haslam, 'but no one knew how to dress. People were thinking, 'Do we wear shoes or trainers with this music? Do I wear a T-shirt?' In early 1988, there were still people coming to the Haçienda in suits with shoulder pads, then all of a sudden they were in dungarees.' Nude was the Haçienda's pioneering night, and was followed in the summer of 1988 by the insane Hot, with Pickering joined in the DJ booth by Jon DaSilva and a swimming pool installed on the dancefloor."

 

3. A new theory about the Uncanny Valley: the problem is that bots don't give us facial cues that suggest they get what we're going through

"Recent empirical evidence suggests that the potential adverse effect of a  perceived lack of empathy from a realistic, human-like, virtual character may have greater uncanny consequences for the viewer. A study was conducted in which movement was disabled in the upper face region (including the eyelids, brows, and forehead) of realistic, human-like characters, limiting the amount of affective signals and the character's ability to indicate empathetic social interaction. The results showed that viewers rated these virtual characters as most uncanny compared to humans and fully animated, virtual characters. A meta-analysis of this empirical evidence on perception of the uncanny and emotional response in virtual characters, combined with psychoanalytic literature and findings in neuroscience, provides a new standpoint on the  Uncanny Valley theory and suggests a conceptual shift. 

"One's ability to empathize with others and understand the cognitive and emotive processes of another has been claimed as the unique quality that defines one as human. As such, I propose that the essence or cause of the Uncanny Valley lies in the perception of a lack of empathy in another. I discuss how the social brain interprets perceptual cues provided via facial expression and how a perceived lack of facial cues may cause the Uncanny Valley effect in synthetic agents."

 

4. Historian David Nye on two flavors of the technological sublime.

"The dynamic technological sublime was embodied in the telegraph, the steamboat, and the railroad, which conquered space and time. Equally important was the conquest of natural obstacles and forces, accomplished by bridges and skyscrapers.These natural structures were assimilated into a new version of the mathematical sublime that began to emerge as the public attempted to explain the feelings induced by seeing a vast panorama of man-made objects.

This new form, the geometrical sublime, had to do with triumphs over nature more emphatic than those of the antebellum period. Whereas the dynamic form of the technological sublime had emphasized the movement of information over wires and railways across the natural landscape, transforming it into a mere backdrop, the geometrical sublime was static and appeared to dominate nature through elegant design and sheer bulk. It found expression first in bridges and soon afterward in skyscrapers. All these structures expressed the triumph of reason in concrete form, proving that the world was becoming, in Emerson's words, 'a realized will'—'the double of man.'"

 

5. "You don’t beat it like metal, you lead it": Tracing glass—stained, flat, auto, float, safety, and blown—through Detroit

"Despite the downward trend of Detroit’s manufacturing, the industrial glass industry continued to prosper during the 1970’s as many innovations were reshaping automotive design.

'Detroit is about the flat glass industry,' says Robert Cassetti, senior director of the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. 'And up until recent history, the automotive industry has driven innovation in flat glass technology.' In Detroit, the automotive industry’s technical demands for safety and lightweight design propelled glass innovations.

The glass industry was late to the industrial revolution. At the beginning of the 20th century, there wasn’t a way to mass-produce flat glass. All glass making for industrial applications were fundamentally hand-made processes’ and highly labor intensive. In order to achieve flat glass, glass cylinders were created then opened and flattened manually. The first ten years of light bulbs were blown by hand, as were Coca-Cola bottles until 1900. It wasn’t until 1901 that Belgian glassmaker Emile Fourcault invented a machine that created long sheets of glass."

 

Today's 1957 American English Language Tip:

area. In its fig. uses area has become a VOGUE WORD: the area of foreign policy; more than two areas of the curriculum; we shall now deal with each subject-matter area; still another area the Protestant Church's life in this period is the area of public worship. For synonyms see FIELD.

I had so thoroughly absorbed this use of area, that it never occurred to me that it was figurative. 

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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