procrastinate

You are most likely reading this post because you should be doing something far more important, you naughty dopamine-junkie of a human. I just know those spreadsheets you have open on your screen are suffering from a severe lack of numbers and I can smell the ancient relics lurking in your fridge from here. Oh yeah, and when were you meant to return that call from your demonic mother-in-law? A year ago?

And then there’s your science blog. Ummm…heh, right.

But don’t worry, I won’t punish you for putting all that responsible adult crap off until….who knows when. Instead I will comfort you with peer-reviewed information about why a not-even-that-funny cat meme gets your undivided loving attention over your taxes. It’s not you, it’s science. Or more specifically, the science of putting things off to feel good right now – procrastination.

So, the next time you find yourself in a pit of self-loathing, M&Ms and a looming deadline, you can instantly repair your shitty mood and just be all like….

I can’t get shit done right now because my prefrontal cortex and limbic system are fighting….again.

good-good-let-the-procrastination-flow-through-you

So basically, we’re wired to put stuff off until tomorr…next wee..month..whenever? Well, that’s what Timothy A. Pychyl, author and professor of psychology at Carleton University, Ottawa explores in his book, The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.

The procrastination guru reckons that our slackness towards paying our bills or cleaning the fridge is due to a pretty vicious game of tug-of-war happening in our brains. This epic battle occurs between the prefrontal cortex, let’s call it the Responsible Adult, and the limbic system, also known as the Pleasure Seeker.

The Responsible Adult, a newer, weaker segment of the brain located just behind the forehead helps us make good grownup decisions based on the information it receives. According to Pychyl, it’s one of the key features that separates us from animals.

The Pleasure Seeker is an older and much more unconscious part of the brain, and regulates immediate mood repair. The problem is, despite its good intentions, the Responsible Adult won’t do your taxes or make the black hole of mess in your room magically disappear when it’s on autopilot. If your attention on the task is half-assed, the Pleasure Seeker will take over and have you checking out the latest cat-meme over a shot glass of sweet dopamine in no time. Before you know it, there’s a growing pile of dishes in the sink, unpaid bills and a (now) overdue assignment. Meanwhile, you’re too drunk on feel-good chemicals to do much about it.

So, how are you supposed to get anything done when there’s a dopamine-junkie in your brain controlling your decisions? You basically have to kick the Responsible Adult’s grey, spongey ass into gear by making a conscious effort to focus on the boring task in front of you, taming the Pleasure Seeker’s cravings for the next hit of dopamine.

I can’t wash my filthy jeans today because of my genes.

scumbag-genetics-meme

When it comes to filing all our boring tasks into the never ending ‘tomorrow’ drawer (whenever that will be), some of us may be more predisposed than others. According to a study published in Psychological Science, your inability to get things done on time could be due to your genetic makeup and even share a link with impulsive behaviour. The tendency to get distracted by that new shiny thing over there likely had an evolutionary advantage for our ancestors’ day-to-day survival at a time when ‘tomorrow’ was uncertain. But procrastination appears to be a more recent phenomenon driven by our newfound emphasis on long-term goals, which we can easily get distracted from when we see that compelling new online quiz. In other words, we tend to get all impulsive when we procrastinate. It seems pretty logical that chronic procrastinators would also be impulsive, but it has remained unclear as to what has influenced this correlation in an evolutionary sense.

One of the most effective ways of seeing how these behavioural traits are linked is by studying twins. Identical twins tend to show strong similarities because they share 100% of their genes. Fraternal twins and siblings only share 50% of their genes and therefore don’t tend to display similarity as strongly.

Using this method, Daniel Gustavson, a psychology graduate from the University of Colorado, Boulder, explored how procrastination and impulsive tendencies are genetically linked by surveying 181 identical twin pairs and 166 fraternal twin pairs. Gustavson and his team assessed the twins on traits such as goal-setting and management, procrastination tendencies and impulsivity. The behavioural similarities displayed by each twin pair indicated that the tendency to swap doing the dishes for (yet another) session of Facebook stalking is likely genetically based.

The researchers also discovered that procrastination and impulsivity are correlated, but impulsiveness does not necessarily lead to putting things off. While being impulsive doesn’t automatically make you a procrastinator, procrastinators tend to also be impulsive.

So why are these two tendencies genetically linked from an evolutionary perspective? Gustavson and his team put it down to goal-management ability – procrastinators are generally impulsive because they do not manage their goals effectively.

It could be worse, at least I actually looked at my bills today. That never happens….

procrastination-will-ferrell-meme

We’re all familiar with the feeling of dread (or sheer terror) when we think of studying for that gnarly chemistry exam. But we know that bad things can only happen when we say, spend more time watching porn than studying, because, well, remember that time when we got that glaring ‘F’ on that exam, a computer clogged with viruses and a sore wrist? Based on past experiences, we generally figure out that it’s a helluva lot more stressful in the end when we put things off for too long. So we pull our (still haven’t been washed) socks up and solemnly repeat the mantra “short-term gain, long-term pain”.

But if you’re a chronic procrastinator, you don’t see the stress you’re currently experiencing as a tool to improve yourself in the long run. Instead, you focus on relieving those unpleasant feelings as soon as possible by casting them aside for a Game Of Thrones marathon. You will find yourself saying things like, “ah well, things could have been worse” and quickly go back to focussing on Khaleesi’s boobs. This self-preserving line of thinking is known as a downward counterfactual, and focusses on mood-repair at the expense of learning from the situation. Non-procrastinators are more likely to use positive counterfactuals when considering what could have been, and are more likely to say, “if I hadn’t have been so focussed on a fictional character’s boobs, I would have done much better in that exam. Note to self for next time”. While positive counterfactual thinking may dampen the mood initially, it motivates us to change our behaviour so we do better down the track.

Fuschia Sirois, psychology professor at Bishop’s University, Canada, looked at how counterfactual thinking influenced procrastination. The study, published in British Journal of Social Psychology, assessed 80 participants on procrastination by testing their responses to written accounts describing two stressful scenarios, one of which involved anxiety caused by delay. The delay driven scenario described how a person put off going to the doctor when noticing an unusual mole after a vacation of sunbathing, resulting in a situation that was only going get worse as time passed. The second scenario talked about the uncertainty experienced when returning home after a neighbour’s house had been on fire. Both situations were stress-inducing and involved uncertainty, but the first case was obviously caused by procrastination. The participants then had to write down as many positive and negative counterfactual responses they could think of to each scenario within five minutes.

Unsurprisingly, procrastinators listed more negative counterfactuals, or “at least” type responses than non-procrastinators, who tended to respond with positive counterfactuals such as “if only”. The study revealed that procrastinators are motivated by feeling better about a situation and avoid the uncomfortable feelings that come with considering how things could have gone better. As a result, they don’t learn from their mistakes and remain trapped in a vicious cycle of stress and delay.

I can’t do my thesis now (even though it’s due tomorrow) because my executive functioning is screwed. Some have even called it dysfunctional.

procrastination

So, you’ve done the above excuses to death when it comes to justifying why reading 14 different versions of your daily horoscope is a far more pressing matter than fixing your broken toilet. The impulsiveness in you is craving a glittery new piece of science to back up your reasons for the lack of ticks on your to-do list.  Well, now is the time (not later) to fall back on your executive functioning not really, well, functioning.

Executive functions are a group of cognitive processes regulated by the frontal parts of the brain. They play a role in self-regulation and are characterised by behaviours like problem solving, self-control, reasoning and planning. Interestingly, few studies have explored the relationship between executive functions and procrastination.

Enter Laura Rabin, neuropsychologist at Brooklyn College, New York. Rabin’s research came about after getting frustrated with her students’ tendency to put off their studies for another few rounds at the campus bar. Up to her eyeballs in extension applications, Rabin decided to explore how executive functioning may be linked with procrastination so she could figure out how the problem could be solved.

Rabin’s team assessed 212 college students for procrastination and nine characteristics of executive functioning: self-monitoring, emotional control, impulsivity, planning and organisation, working memory, general orderliness, task initiation, task monitoring and activity shifting. The study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology found that the executive function domains of initiation, planning and organisation, memory, self-monitoring, inhibiting, task monitoring and organisation of materials were significant predictors of procrastination in students. While it isn’t clear whether these aspects of executive functioning are a direct cause for procrastination, it may suggest that the tendency to leave things unfinished could be the result of a “subtle executive dysfunction”.

Either way, writing down hungover ‘subtle executive dysfunction’ on your extension application instead of the usual excuses like ‘food poisoning’ and ‘my grandmother passed away…again’ may at least win you points for academic originality.

Now that you’re armed with these perfectly legit blame shifting power statements, you can go knock yourself out with a cat meme and a hit of dopamine until…..tomorrow? 

Sources

Gustavson, D., Miyake, A., Hewitt, J., & Friedman, N. (2014). Genetic relations among procrastination, impulsivity, and goal-management ability: Implications for the evolutionary origin of procrastination. Psychological Science.

Pychyl A. T. 2010. The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the

Procrastination Puzzle. Xlibris. USA.

Rabin, L.A., Fogel, J., & Nutter-Upham, K.E. (2011). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 33, 344-357.

Sirois, F.M. (2004). Procrastination and counterfactual thinking: Avoiding what might have been. British Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 269-286.

QUICK!! Gottawritethispostbeforetheworld’sfastestorganismdoesitsthing!!! Quick, fast, gogogogogoGO!

Nope. Already too late. In fact, by the time I typed “QU” this living thing probably already went through its lifecycle a good fifty times (note: NOT backed up by peer-reviewed evidence. I did say probably, and I didn’t mean statistically).

Yeah, whatever, I hear you say. We all know about those genetically screwed inbred cats called cheetahs and their 95km/h sprints across the African savannah. Oh yeah, and those birds who wear stupid hoods called peregrine falcons which whiz through the skies at a good 389km/h. And let’s not forget those crazy mohawked Actinopterygii called sailfish that shoot through the ocean at 109km/h. Tell us something new oh, white-coated one.

Well, how would you feel if I said that the world’s fastest accelerating organism was a thing growing on faeces?

Your face is like this right now…. Image

…and this is when I can take great pleasure in saying – it’s friggin’ FUNGUS. Or more specifically Pilobolus crystallinus, which is a really non-catchy way of saying Hat thrower fungus (doesn’t actually wear a hat) or Dung cannon fungus (doesn’t actually fire cannons). And both of these names are actually fairly descriptive of what this type of fungus does – it grows on animal crap and flings its spores into the air like a paintballer on crack. Image

These spores land on surrounding vegetation and get eaten by an unsuspecting herbivore. The spores do not harm their host and travel through the animal’s digestive system unscathed. Once excreted out, the fungi feed on the nutrients in the dung and prepares a new set of spores to begin the whole paintballin’ lifecycle again. As most animals understandably don’t like eating near their own excrement, this longwinded process is necessary for the fungi to travel far and wide.

But here’s the part that makes all those other speedy organisms appear about as fast as your grandmother’s dial-up connection. These little bundles of fungal joy are super lightweight and require a lot of force to travel a good two metres to a fresh area of greenery. So, to make this feat possible, they accelerate to over 70km/h within the first millimetre of their voyage (yes you read that correctly). Ridiculous really, but if you were stuck growing on shit and had to ensure the survival of your species, you would be wanting to get away pretty damn quick too.

Meanwhile, I asked how the fastest animals were feeling about being trumped by something which grows on their poo:

Cheetah: I feel cheeted.

Peregrine falcon: Shit. Look, don’t tell the rich people otherwise I’ll lose my job and reputation faster than, well, me on a good day. Remind me not to crap on their lawn. Gotta fly…somewhere……far from here.

Sailfish: Pffft, whatever. I’m unasSAILable. There, see, I bet fungus can’t pull off a pun like I can. Eat shit and die you….you thrower of hats. Wait….oh God.

There, there, you bunch of sound barrier breakers. There’s one thing that moves faster than the lot you, and that’s the interest level of people reading shiz on the internet. It will all be forgotten within a day or so. It’s ooooookaaaaay.

Source:  www.ifls.com, Feb 11 2014

So, you’re bored shitless with the missionary position and your pussy (the feline one) has ended up playing with all your sex toys because they just don’t quite send you over the edge like they used to. That, and your computer is too loaded with viruses to even switch on because you’ve clicked on your favourite porn site more times than your ex’s Facebook page (which is a lot isn’t it?). You’ve torn your hamstrings from attempting too much Kama Sutra, and all that kinky S&M stuff just feels like child’s play now. And let’s not get you started on dating, because frankly, you’d rather get your tubes tied/foreskin chewed off than spend three hours talking about the weather over mediocre food and grog.

Just admit to it. You want to do it like an animal now. Well here’s your inspiration from the top 10 most hardcore sex freaks of the animal kingdom. Have your tissues ready…

10. Brown antechinus (Species: Antechinus stuartii)

The date

Well, whatever the fuck happened to dinner and a movie? You won’t get candlelit dinners and roses from this manwhore of a marsupial, but he will go out with a bang – literally. This little ball of fluff literally shags as many girls as possible until he drops dead, an event known to the white coat crowd as semelparity.

In fact, it’s the sort of date you’ll be spending all year greasing your crotch up for, only to show up with hundreds of other ladies, no dinner and no contraception. Pfffft why would any self-respecting single antechinus lady bother with a sex addict who will die before he even catches your surname? Weeellll, you are guaranteed a 12-hour sex marathon that will leave your bits well and truly pureed, and for a girl of this species, that’s all you’ll want really. That, and you’ll get a litter of up to 10 kids. Woot. Just don’t expect the bloke to pay child support, as he’ll be too busy bangin’ virgins in antechinus heaven.

But if you ever start having regrets in the midst of single-motheritis, you can always comfort yourself by knowing that Mr. Fuck-me-dead died a horrible, corticosteroid-fueled death wracked with internal bleeding, gangrene and a whole slew of infections as a result of his insatiable thirst for sexual competition. Seems fair…

Dating tip: Screw fast, die young.

9. Hippopotamus (Species: Hippopotamus amphibius)

The date

Ever shat your pants out of nerves before a first date? Unacceptable isn’t it? But if you’re a male hippo, turning your tail into a shit and piss spraying propeller is more romantic than getting sand in your foreskin after a quickie on the beach at sunset.

Instead of showing up at your front door with a box of chocolates, your date will create his own brown stuff to make your undies all gooey. And if you’re not digging the prospect of having your impeccable first-date makeup ruined by a spray of faecal matter, there’s no chance you’ll find another hot male in your periphery, because Mr. Shizen’s display is also his way of marking his territory, i.e YOU.

Dating tip: If you really want to impress her, take a laxative beforehand.

8. White-fronted parrot (Species: Amazona albifrons)

The date

Ok, this one starts off well in human terms, seeing as we’re dealing with one of the few species which engages in kissing (daaaaaaaw). So, the date will be going smoother than a Barry White song. You’ll be so turned on by your man’s green feathered suit that you’ll be tongue punching each other non-stop. He’s a pretty good kisser, striking the perfect balance between beak and tongue, and you think that he may be the one to give you a nest of four kids.

Then he throws up the $200 meal you just had – in your mouth. And just when you think that his puking is because he handles booze like an underager in a whiskey bar, he says something like, “that steak was sooooo good that I want you to have it, but I only just realised that. Sorry.” Scientists don’t even know the function of this disgusting act other than the possibility that the spew is some kind of ‘gift’ from the male. I guess it kinda works if you have a combination of food envy and an inability to masticate. I did say MAS-TI-CATE.

Dating tip: Pick out your favourite thing on the menu and get him to order it for himself. Skip dessert and leave room for his vomit instead.

7. Flatworm (Phylum: Platyhelminthes)

The date

“On guaaarrd!!!” is something you could be saying a lot whilst on a date with Mr. Flatworm. Actually, make that Mr. and/or Miss Flatworm seeing as we’re dealing with a hermaphrodite here. This means that you’re both going to have trouser snakes; white, double-headed, dagger-like trouser snakes that look like they belong on the cover of a bad death-metal album.

So, how are you going to figure out who gets to be the missus? By dropping your flatworm designer jeans and having a round of good ol’ fashioned penis fencing. Duh! Whoever gets their skin pierced and subsequently jizzed on first is the ‘loser’ i.e the mother of the kids. That’s literally how scientists describe it. Don’t stab me with your crotch-sword for sounding sexist.

Dating tip: You may want to avoid typical date locations such as posh restaurants, coffee shops and the movies. You’re better off taking him/her/it down a dark alley, the back of a service station, or the roughest pub you can find where this sort of behaviour is acceptable. Or better yet, prison. That sort of thing is expected there…

6. Water boatman (Species: Micronecta scholtzi)

The date

Oh not this guy! You know the type. That wimp of a guy who spontaneously bursts into song professing his undying love for you within the first hour of a date, possibly with an out-of-tune guitar that’s worth less than the mediocre wine you’ve been knocking back to get through the night without slitting your wrists.

But if you’re with Mr. Micronecta, he’ll be busting out tunes by rubbing his manhood against his abdomen…at 100 decibels. That’s as loud as a motorcycle going brraaaaaaaaaaap. Yeah, he’s not the strong silent type at all. And if you’re thinking his junk must be the size of a trombone to produce such eardrum-shattering serenades, well you’re wrong. He’s a puny 2.3 millimetres long, which would make his penis…pretty bloody non-existent.

But if you’re hoping that you’ll be safe from embarrassment when you’re dining in a restaurant packed full of other species due to musical-schlong’s species-specific serenades, you’re wrong. His singing penis is so loud that even humans can hear it emanating from the depths of the local river. Well that’s just fucking great…

Dating tip: Put in a request beforehand. If he can’t play your favourite song then cancel the date to avoid public shame.

5. Hyena (Family: Hyaenidae)

The date

Well blokes, prepare to be stuffing socks down your jeans before taking this androgen-pumped lass out, because you’re likely going to feel somewhat inadequate in the groin area. In fact, instead of wining and dining her, it’s probably best to take your alpha female hyena out for beer, footy and strippers. This is because she will look more he-man than you due to her body being pumped full of the blokey hormone, androgen.

Alpha hyena lads, I mean, lasses have a super-dose of androgen to ensure that their offspring are aggressive enough to survive on the harsh African savannah. However, all those extra man-mones not only give her rippling muscles that would snap your arm off in an arm-wrestle, they also give her a 7-inch clitoris that will make your manhood shrivel up in shame. Once you get over the initial feeling of being emasculated, you may feel somewhat relieved to know that her clitoris is pretty easy to find. But little did you know that you have to actually have penetrative sex with her pseudo-penis-clit thing, which could take months to master. And if that whole ordeal isn’t awkward enough already, what will be even more awkward is watching your almost-transvestite girlfriend give birth through something that is basically a penis.

Dating tip: Don’t even bother, basically.

4. Duck (Family: Anatidae)

The date

Ok, ducks are messed up. I mean look at them. They glide across your childhood memories like feathered dream boats from the pages of your favourite storybook. But can you trust Mr. Drake to mind your drink as you duck (ahem!) into the little girls room to powder your bill? Hell no! He’ll be spiking it with something, because what we have here is a serial rapist.

“Oh but how bad could it be?” you ask, “birds don’t have penises, so wouldn’t he just rub his feathery crotch against my ass or something? I think that’s kinda cute.”

Well, no. Ducks are one of the few birds which do have penises; monstrous, spiralling, barbed penises that look and behave like something out of the gnarliest of Japanese pornos. But don’t blame him for being screwed up! It’s just that duck women are damn hard to impregnate because their vaginas are so complex and maze-like that you almost need a GPS to navigate them, and ducks don’t have smart phones! So evolution simply gave them the next best thing – genitalia that can crack female complexity. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. In duck language, that means rape ‘em.

Dating tip: Watch some Japanese porn to get in the mood. At least being in the mood will make the whole thing consensual.

3. Whiptail lizard (Genus: Cnemidophorus)

The date

OMG finally! A date that resembles your orgiastic Girls Gone Wild fantasy. Hot chicks getting onto each other and dragging you into the fun as well!! All of this while your mate films the whole thing with his cellphone!

Hmmmm yeeeaaaah, well about the being included part. You see the thing is, this is kind of a girls night out.

Ok more like a man-hating lesbian night out.

Oh alriiiight. There’s actually no such thing as a man in this gang at all, because what we have here is a bunch of ‘parthenogenetic unisexual pseudocopulators’ which really just means ‘dry-humping lesbian semi-clones’.

These gals are the ultimate embodiment of the I-don’t-need-a-man-to-have-a-kid movement, because they reproduce all on their own just like the Virgin Mary. Men are about as real as unicorns, Santa Claus and Jocelyn Wildenstein’s face. There is mo such thing in whiptail lizard land. But it’s not all sexless, because these lizards are known to still hump each other for no particular reason at all. Of course, you would like to think it’s so you can post the footage on the internet.

Dating tip: Be a lesbian.

2. Cichlid fish (Family: Cichlidae)

The date

So, you think taking it in the mouth is the best contraceptive? Not if you’re a female cichlid fish who gives birth from her pie-hole. And if you’re a male, don’t expect to talk to your date about politics, star signs and how your freshwater habitat ain’t lookin’ so fresh anymore.

This is because your date’s mouth will be stuffed full of eggs, along with all the other ‘essential’ paraphernalia girls carry in their handbags. This means that taking her out to a nice meal isn’t really an option, and you won’t get much more than a ‘mmmphhh’ when you crack one of your appalling jokes about how many beta-male cichlids it takes to change a lightbulb.

But don’t despair, you colourful hunk of cichlid alpha-maleness, because shortly you can cut the dinner-and-movie crap and trick her into eating your spunk. Yep, you’ll trick her, because you have markings on your anal fin which look just like the eggs she’s holding in her gob. Thinking that you’re being a gentleman for picking up her rogue eggs, she’ll come over and start sucking on you harder than a vacuum in a priest’s changing room. At this glorious moment, you’ll get to shoot all over her like the dominating alpha-male that you are. You’ll then speed off into the watery sunset doing the swim of pride while she gets stuck with a bunch of kids in her mouth.

Dating tip: Here’s a girl who is always paranoid about losing things, especially her eggs. So use this to your advantage. Be nice and offer to count her eggs for her. This will get her mouth wide open, and then you can blind her with your man glue and quickly swim off to go to the cichlid fish equivalent of the titty bar with your mates. Smooth.

1. Anglerfish (Order: Lophiiformes)

The date

Ladies, make sure you’re cashed up and wearing some pants because not only will you have to pay for dinner, you’re also about to become a lifelong sugar-mummy. Here’s the dude that Cosmo mag warns you about every week. He drains good tax payers’ money while he scratches his ass and reaches for the remote.

What we have here is the fucking useless freeloading, dole-bludgeing douchebag of the deep sea. He’s such a screw-up that once he gets to a certain age (oh gee I dunno, fourteen in human years) his digestive system shuts down and he can’t even feed himself. This means that he has to find a mothe….eerr….girlfriend to pretty much wipe his ass for him, a phenomenon known as sexual parasitism to those who are too polite to call this dude a fucktard.

So basically, your night out would consist of him biting you and releasing an enzyme which fuses the two of you together forever right down to the circulatory system, which almost sounds like the stuff of some romantic vampire novel, almost. But once the initial honeymoon phase of eternal bonding wears off, you’ll find that you’re stuck with an empty fridge, extra bills and a whole bunch of kids you can’t remember conceiving because your clingy boyfriend jizzed all over your eggs when you were too busy doing, oh you know, everything.

Dating tip: Get rich and watch some shitty vampire-romance shows to make sexual parasitism seem more appealing.

Maybe the missionary position ain’t so bad after all…

"I am here with the intent of making you laugh." (Image: MAT QMUL/Flickr)

“I am here with the intent of making you laugh.” (Image: MAT QMUL/Flickr)

Siri: What can I help you with?

ABSB: Tell me a joke.

Siri: Let me think…nope can’t think of one.

ABSB: Well, make me laugh then.

Siri: That may be beyond my abilities at the moment.

ABSB: You’re not very funny Siri.

Siri: Siri knows many things.

ABSB: Well, comedy isn’t one of them.

Siri: I can do that if you update to the latest version of iOS.

ABSB: Fuck you.

Siri: There’s no need to curse at me.

Human = 1,

‘intelligent’ piece of cra…technology = 0

So it seems that humour really is in the domain of “weak-skinned pathetic perishable humans”.

Or is it?

Well, there’s a new stand-up comedian on the scene, and he doesn’t take the form of a furless ape mutant with an overdeveloped brain. Instead, he has a white glossy polyethylene terephthalate body shell, LCD eyes and comes with an interface PC.

“I never really know how to start,” boomed the male voice over the audience at the Barbican Centre in London, “which is probably because I run off Windows 8.” Touche!

Meet RoboThespian, a joke-cracking humanoid robot created by Engineered Arts in Britain.

“You know what really pushes my buttons?”, the gag-spewing machine asked, “That guy that’s in control of me.”

The performance, which was headed by Queen Mary University of London professor, Pat Healey and PhD candidate Kleomenis Katevas, was designed to gain insight into what makes a performance so damn entertaining.

To assess the audience’s response to the machine’s antics, cameras recorded facial expressions, gazes and head movements. The results were compared to preceding performances by human comedians, Andrew O’Neill and Tiernan Douieb.

Although the timing and delivery of RoboThespian’s jokes during this performance were pre-programmed, the robo-comic had also performed the routine with slight modifications in his delivery according to the crowd’s reaction.

But this whole thing wasn’t just about seeing if a machine can make a human audience’s pants wet. What Healey and Katevas really wanted to know is how to make robots more socially engaging, particularly those designed to work in our homes.

One of the things that makes live performances so exhilarating is the anxiety you feel when a comedian takes the stage. Will they suck? Will I go home with soggy jeans and sore abs? Should I grab some tomatoes? But there’s something kinda, well, mechanical when you have a talking pile of metallic bits saying things like “R2-D2 swears all the time. We have to bleep him out for the kids.”

Not funny? That’s ok. You can’t really heckle a comic’s ego to shreds when they don’t have one built in. Kind of no fun if your favourite part of a stand-up performance is slinging rotten fruit at the poor sod on stage.

In fact, heckling wouldn’t result in much at all. RoboThespian’s routine is entirely scripted, so he can’t produce a viper-tongued retort to a rowdy audience member on the fly. The punchlines of the robot’s gags are also a little harder to catch because the emphasis isn’t always on point.

Although you may not have seen RoboThespian’s name up in lights before, the humanoid robot has actually been around since 2005. The original plan for these all singing all dancing chunks of aluminium was to have a troop perform at the Mechanical Theatre in Cornwall. Currently, over 20 of the models are being used in museums and science education programs as presenters, greeters, guides and multi-language robotic spokesmen.

But…I dunno. It’s all very novel and all, but I hurled a rotten tomato at my iPhone for Siri’s lack of humour and nothing really happened, which is pretty boring really. So I highly doubt RoboThespian would run off the stage in tears. No fun at all. Gimme a real flesh and bone comedian to have a go at. That way I won’t need to buy a new iPhone.

Source: New Scientist, August 15th, 2013 http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24050-robot-comedian-stands-up-well-against-human-rivals.html#.Uj7DpmRHty8

Another thing we have to worry about (Image: Alice Auersperg)

Another thing we have to worry about (Image: Alice Auersperg)

Gaaaaah what the hell was that noise at the door?!?

God, as if we don’t have enough to worry about in this world of possums hijacking our roofs, cats hogging our pillows and polar bears going through our garbage bins. Your home needs a new security system, because while the five or so locks on your front door may keep that stalker of yours at bay, it won’t deter a cockatoo from breaking in and shitting all over everything in your house, including your pillow-hogging cat.

Oh holy CRAP there it is again!!! #HideUnderBedMonstersAtTheDoor

A new study published in PLoS One has revealed that cockatoos are capable of picking locks with no prior training(!!!).

Here’s the video to prove it (cheers New Scientist!). You may want to mute the elevator music though…

http://www.newscientist.com/video/2524943828001-clever-cockatoos-pick-five-locks-to-get-food.html

Alex Kacelnik, behavioural ecologist at the University of Oxford in the UK, and his team of researchers presented 10 cockatoos with a box containing a nut, which was sealed with five different locking devices. To access the food, the birds had to unfasten a pin, followed by a screw and a bolt, and then turn a wheel to release a bar. Each of these locks required unique approaches to picking them, and could be tackled by each individual differently.

Out of the group, half of the birds managed to crack the locks with some coaxing or practice. But one of the birds – let’s call him Pipin – broke into the box in under two hours with no assistance or practice.

But before you jump to conclusions and assume that Pipin has been trained by your persistent-as-the-faecal-stains-in-your-undies stalker, Kacelnik has a better answer for the bird’s locksmithing talents.

“Some birds excel at different tasks. Pipin is an ace at solving locks whereas another bird at the lab is good at making tools.” O_o Kacelnik, you’re being way too cool about all of this. I’m kinda starting to think you’re stalking your ex-gir…..oh HELL, the door it’s tappingagainlockstapsdoorhidedon’tanswer….fuck, fuck, FUCK!!

Meh, pffffft, I hear you mutter. How do we know that the cockatoos didn’t just remember the tasks or if they actually understood how to crack the locks? In other words, how do we know that they hadn’t just been trained by your stalker to pick the lock on your front door?

The team reshuffled the set-up by breaking, removing and reordering some of the locks. While these alterations may confuse some animals, the cockatoos still managed to solve the puzzle, showing that they understand how each part works together. They also didn’t need to be rewarded for each task to solve the problem. So to be blunt, yes, your stalker could get a cockatoo to figure out all those locks on your door without weeks of training or the lure of a cracker.

Nooooo!!

And if say, Pipin, was to break into your house at your stalker’s request, he would figure out your locks with his beak and tongue rather than by sight, which is typical of parrots. By relying on touch to solve a problem, the birds gain an understanding of the consequences of their actions.

But further research is required to get a clearer idea of what the hell is going through these birds’ heads in these situations. Frankly, I’d rather not know. I’m staying under my bed until whoever (whatever!) it is gets fed up and pisses off.

For christ’s sake, someone give that bird a cracker!!!

Journal reference:PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0068979

Source: New Scientist, 03 July 2013

Hollywood has a lot to answer for...

Hollywood has a lot to answer for…

Are you tired of hammering those pesky nails into your wall? Sick of having to nimbly sidle past giant security guards because you don’t have your ID? Or are you just too lazy to open that bottle of beer?

Then you need the club-clawed, snail-smashing, fish tank destroying….peacock mantis shrimp!

Wait, what? Those things we chuck on the barbie?

Well, sort of but not really. They’re a badass shrimp relative that would likely destroy your BBQ with a single swoop of their clubs. They could also crack open your beer if given the chance. That gives a whole new meaning to getting hammered.

But I’m not really just being figurative here. The peacock mantis shrimp does indeed possess two hammers that are tough enough to smash through some poor unsuspecting prey, such as a snail. They’ve also been known to pound through fish tank glass, delivering the equivalent of 70kg of force at 23 metres per second. And if that isn’t enough, their blows are so fast and powerful that they create bubbles in the water that implode instantly, which thrusts even more bullet-speed force upon their prey. All of this superhero-power earns the colourful shrimp a place amongst the strongest blow deliverers in the animal kingdom. Jeez, calm the fuck down shrimp rello. You’re showing up all the Hollywood superheroes.

The question I’m sure you’re asking though is how the peacock mantis shrimp manages to smash its way through life without, well, smashing itself. According to David Kisailus, chemical and environmental engineer at the University of California in Riverside, it’s the structure and composition that makes the shrimp’s clubs so goddamn tough.

Kisailus’ analysis of the clubs’ structure revealed that they are made up of three distinct layers. The outer layer is made up of  hydroxyapatite, which is geek-speak for the stuff that makes bones unbreakable (in theory). The mineral’s organised crystalline structure makes it a tough coating for the shrimp’s hammering clubs.

The second layer is also composed of this mineral, but it is less organised in its structure. The third layer underlying the hydroxyapatite layers is made up of chitin, which is the spiral-shaped polymer that forms crustacean shells. The secret to this tough combo is how each layer differs in their bendiness. This means that if a crack forms in one layer then it won’t penetrate far into the next, leaving the overall structure in good nick. Even if a crack does form in the chitin layer, it will be in a spiral formation which hardly weakens the rest of the shrimp’s club.

So if you want to smash something without smashing yourself, just call upon the peacock mantis shrimp to do the job for you. You won’t have to visit the ER and you’ll be able to get things done better than a Hollywood superhero. Everyone’s happy! Apart from your goldfish…

Source: Zoologger, June 2012

Journal: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1218764

Sorry, it's not Scratch 'n Sniff...

Sorry, it’s not Scratch ‘n Sniff…

Yep, I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to perfume. There was my heady teen first love with Thierry Mugler’s Angel, a relationship I knew would last a lifetime (well, at the time). But then I met someone more rich and exotic in the form of L’Occitane’s Neroli. This clingy affair went on for a good few years until I met the rest of L’Occitane’s harem of scents, who had a terrible influence on my faithful ways. I listened to my nose rather than my head and had wild affairs with all of them, often at the same time. Then once their tiny bottles emptied, Thierry Mugler’s Alien (yep I like to keep it in the family) swept my nostrils off of my, well, face, and then brutally broke my heart when the nozzle just stopped working one day. I longed for its otherworldly mist to caress my neck again first thing in the morning. But then I met someone someone older and more mature than all those other silly kid perfumes – Chanel No 5.

It’s been the best olfactory relationship I’ve ever had. But I’m tired of people saying that I smell like their grandmother’s armpit, and judging by the crap sitting in duty free at the airport, it’s either that or smelling like some popstar’s snatch after a gig.

And this isn’t good enough. I need to strip away the scent of credit card abuse in the department store. All I want right now is to smell “intermediately pleasant”. In short, I want to whiff of white.

Laurax, will you marry me?

Alrighty, so this strange but not-so-chic scent isn’t going to be mysteriously lingering on your husband’s shirts anytime soon, but it has been found on a few lab coats recently, particularly Noam Sobel’s from Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. Sobel and colleagues recently set out to make the smelly version of white.

The colour we perceive as white is actually a blend of several different wavelengths of light exhibiting the same intensity. The same goes for sound: white noise is simply a result of mixing together different frequencies of equal power. With this principle in mind, Sobel and colleagues created “olfactory white” by combining different scents of the same strength.

The neurobiologists took 86 distinct single-molecule odours that are commonly found in your favourite perfumes and diluted them until they were all the same intensity. The components were then mixed into 200 different groups containing between one and 43 odours of various molecular structures and scents. Once dabbed onto absorbent pads, the mixtures were sniffed in pairs by 59 volunteers and rated on similarity. The more odours each mixture contained, the more similar the participants rated the pairs. Mixtures with over 30 different scents appeared to be similar, but participants could still distinguish between them.

“This suggests that if more non-overlapping odours are added to the two mixtures, they should eventually smell the same,” says Sobel. “This would be olfactory white.”

Next, the team created another four ‘white’ mixtures with 40 different components, naming them all Laurax. The participants were assigned a mixture each to smell, and after four days were asked to identify their mixture from 23 others containing various odours. Although they correctly identified their particular version of Laurax every time, they also thought that mixtures containing 30 or more components were the white scent.

So does white smell actually exist outside of our minds? Probably not, as most aromas in nature do not contain as many components as Laurax. Similarly, white noise and white light rarely occur in the natural world, but the concept of white anything has certainly revealed a lot about how our senses work. Each olfactory receptor in our brains detects a specific molecule of an odour, but when several different chemicals are present all the receptors fire at once. This overloads the brain and hinders its ability to isolate a specific molecule, hence our perception of white smell.

Goodbye overpriced olfactory lovers, I’m going off to mix up some nice and pleasant Laurax. And you, dear readers, can smell of white too. Find three different recipes here http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/files/2012/11/Laurax-recipes.pdf  and use this http://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ to crack the codes. No sweat from Lady Gaga’s crotch.

Knock yourselves out.

Journal reference: PNAS, doi.org/js7

Source: Not Exactly Rocket Science http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/11/19/the-smell-of-white-%E2%80%93-mixtures-of-many-distinct-scents-end-up-smelling-the-same/#.UQ_d-mmH5k5

New Scientist http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22514-white-smell-the-olfactory-equivalent-of-white-noise.html