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OpenLearn Live: 7th April 2016

Updated Thursday 7th April 2016

The specs couldn't save Google's digital specs. Then more free learning across the day.

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Yesterday, we heard how beethoven used maths to write music, and what sperm whales use their heads for

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Today's posts

Talking to dogs

Who wants to hear about some research? Who wants to hear about it? Do you want to hear about it? You do. Yes, you do. Yes, yes, you do.

Sorry, OpenLearn Live is more of a cat person so not altogether good at this talking to dogs thing. But we're attempting it to higlight some new research from  Barnard College’s Dog Cognition Lab. Two researchers, Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht, have analysed video of people playing with their pooches and compiled a list of most-frequently used words in human/dog interaction. "You" and "good" come out on top.

Perhaps more interestingly, they also discerned a difference in how people who work with dogs (groomers, walkers and so on) interact with their pets compared with others:

When Hecht and Horowitz looked for differences between the professionals and the non-professionals, they found that pros stayed closer to their pets while playing. These owners spent more time in close proximity to their dogs, and more time face-too-face.

This does have practical value beyond being interesting - as dogs increasingly are trained to perform tasks beneficial to two-legged types, understanding what works well in communicating with pooches could be important.

Read the full article: Words we say to dogs at Discover

More on dogs in the OpenLearn Hound Hub

Signage at Kings Cross

Ever get the feeling you're being led astray by signs - and taken onto a route that might not be the most direct? If you've been to London's busy King's Cross Station, you might not have been wrong. City Metric's Barbara Speed spoke to the station manager, Mike Guy, to find out why:

CM: Why do some routes seem to send you a less direct route – like those that send you away from the old ticket hall for the Victoria and Piccadilly lines?

MG: We encourage people to use the subway which is at a lower level [marked above as the long pinkish tunnel running from the Victoria line to the Northern ticket hall] for transfers between lines. In general, that's fairly reasonable.

CM: That does mean you'd be walking for longer, depending on the transfer you're making – but is that to try and alleviate crowding? 

MG: Yes. And occasionally, to avoid congestion, we will divert passengers onto a longer route. 

Read the full article at City Metric: The signs at King's Cross

From OpenLearn: do crowds behave like fluids?

Panama Papers: A short reading list III

We turn again to some of the better commentary around the Panama Papers, the huge tranche of documents which has allowed the world's media to explore the world of tax avoidance. Previously, we've featured the Papers on OpenLearn Live this week on Monday and Tuesday.

Colon, Panama Creative commons image Icon Roger W under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license Colon, Panama

Here's a brief selection of pieces which help explain how the story continues to move on.

First, David Cameron has been asked questions about how far his family have benefitted from offshore tax arrangements. BBC News reports Downing Street's firm denials:

Downing Street has said David Cameron, his wife and children do not benefit from offshore funds after questions about his family's tax affairs.

No 10 was forced to issue a statement after Labour called for an inquiry into Britons linked to tax haven allegations - including Mr Cameron's family.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had called on the PM to "set the record straight" and publish his tax returns.

The row centres on an investment fund set up by Mr Cameron's late father Ian.

Not everyone is convinced, but the journalist Robert Peston believes that some commentators are misunderstanding the implication of the tax arrangements of the fund - called Blairmore. In a Facebook post, he explains:

[Anyone in David Cameron's family] who received income or capital from Blairmore [would] have paid [UK income] tax on it.

That said, Blairmore's offshore status does reduce - probably to zero - the tax liabilities of Blairmore itself. Any profits it makes from its investments is not subject to corporation or income tax.

Which many of you may see as scandalous.

But it is worth making three points. As a company incorporated in Panama, the tax would go to the Panamanian taxman - which would do naff all good to our deficit (and Panama as a point of principle doesn't want the tax).

Second the less tax Blairmore pays in Panama, the bigger the dividends it can in theory pay to investors in Britain - who should therefore pay commensurately more tax in the UK.

And finally Blairmore's Panama/Bahamas structure - which latterly became a Panama/Dublin structure - is spectacularly conventional.

In France, the far-right Front National has shrugged off historic links with tax avoidance. David Lees writes for The Conversation about why the Party is able to withstand the revelations:

The Front National has strongly denied any suggestion that it has avoided paying tax. It has argued that the party should not be held to account for the actions of former employees and even dismissed the practices of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca as an obvious symptom of unchecked globalisation.

Employment, not tax avoidance, is the big issue of the day, so any policy on that necessarily speaks much more loudly to voters than any of the revelations from the Panama Papers.

And with Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal Le Pen on board as a young, charismatic figure, the party appears to have less of a generational divide with young people than the mainstream parties. Despite the widespread press coverage in France and overseas, these claims will do little to dent the electoral hopes of the FN or indeed Le Pen.

The leak has been a public relations nightmare for the lawyers whose security has failed. The University of Exeter's Will Harvey suggests how  Mossack Fonseca should manage its reputation crisis:

It is critical to provide some visualisation to humanise an organisation. This is particularly the case with Mossack Fonseca, which is working in an industry which by definition is opaque and secretive. One way of doing this is by putting individuals in front of a camera and microphone, or telling a story about its history, such as an executive repeating on camera what the firm has said in its statement:

For 40 years Mossack Fonseca has operated beyond reproach in our home country and in other jurisdictions where we have operations. Our firm has never been accused or charged in connection with criminal wrongdoing.

Another approach would be to communicate the values that an organisation stands for. For instance, in a further statement, Mossack Fonseca provided details of its commitment, in the past 18 months, to compliance to new regulations and due diligence. But a further approach would be that if an organisation accepts any wrongdoing then it should clearly communicate the activities that it is taking to put that right and change in the future.

So far, Mossack Fonseca has denied any wrongdoing, but one thing it should be doing – if it isn’t already – is reassuring its clients about additional steps it has taken to safeguard their private documentation, otherwise it will lose them as clients to other competitors very quickly.

From the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School, Philip Nichols and Liz Confalone discuss the scandal - and its implications for transparency - in a special podcast:

The leak is just one part and the beginning of a wider scandal, according to Confalone. “Anonymous companies have been a known problem for many years, but this investigation is unprecedented in size and scope,” she said. “It exposes just one firm — admittedly a large firm — in a larger industry. The trouble is it is legal to set these anonymous companies up in various jurisdictions around the world. You are getting a few more details that you wouldn’t ordinarily see but for a leak.”

Digital rewind week: Google Glass

Everyday this week, we're starting off with the story of a digital product which didn't quite make it. Yesterday, we heard the story of Microsoft's Plays For Sure and Zune audio formats. Today, we're going to pull on our spectacles and catch up with Google Glass.

Google glass Creative commons image Icon Kārlis Dambrāns under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

A lot of modern technology is designed to change the way we look at things; Google Glass was going to make that metaphor solid. The launch in 2012 was anything but low-key, with a demo of the product being worn by skydivers.

Yes, the product was shown as literally falling from the heavens.

The product itself had been long anticipated - and early adopters received their headsets eagerly. But the reception of spectacles wasn't completely rapturous. It was kind of an overwhelming "meh".

The voice-controlled camera and ability to overlay information on the real world scene you're looking at was useful, but there were concerns about the glasses from the start. Jason at Launch spotted the problem:

I’ve run into several friends wearing Google Glass in the past three months, and I have three words of advice for them: 

Take. Them. Off.

First, you look like an idiot. 

Second, you’re killing the party.

Third, are you recording me right now?!? 

Although tiny cameras allowing secretive filming have existed for an age - as any politician caught in a tabloid scam will attest - Google Glass seemed to up the creep factor. The Guardian recorded privacy concerns:

As the security researcher Marc Rogers told Slashgear last month, the challenge is around expectation. The first wearable computer was developed by the maths professor Edward O Thorpin and Claude Shannon in the 1960's to cheat on roulette tables.

"People weren't expecting someone to be able to take a computer into that environment," said Rogers. "Who's to say what Glass will allow? Industrial espionage, identifying flaws in buildings, scoping out security positions. It would be easy to modify Glass to identify every single security camera, and plot you a path you could walk through a shopping centre where you're not going to be recorded."

"What Glass has done is draw people's attention to new concepts. So, if people are talking about the risk of Glass, in reality that risk has been around much longer. It's just Glass is making you think about it."

If people looked at you oddly if you wore them, it might have been these security worries. Or it could just be that, as New York Times fashion writer Vanessa Freidman pointed out, they looked a bit ugly:

In those original incarnations, Glass just looked silly. It may have telegraphed “early adopter,” but it also signaled “person desperate to look like a early adopter.” Is that the message most of us want to send?

Whether Glass ends up being a professional tool for doctors and photographers, as our Bits blog discussed, or an actual everyday consumer product, transforming it into an object that looks less like a tech toy and more like a desirable accessory will give it an appeal that can only be additive.

Sales weren't great. By June 2014, a generous estimate suggested that only 300,000 pairs had found their way onto eager noses. And early last year, Google announced it was withdrawing Google Glass:

Google is ending sales of its Google Glass eyewear.

The company insists it is still committed to launching the smart glasses as a consumer product, but will stop producing Glass in its present form.

Instead it will focus on "future versions of Glass" with work carried out by a different division to before.

So, was the product a failure? Marketwatch generously suggested it had been learning point, introducing the public to how wearing tools can augment their lives:

Ori Inbar, the chief executive of the non-profit, said it couldn’t be “farther from the truth” to call Google Glass dead, or a failure. He says Google has sold more hardware in the smart glass category than anyone else so far, which has helped to raise public awareness and create inroads for competition. 

“Google elevated public awareness to smart glasses to an unprecedented level,” he said.

Although, as basic eyeglasses are wearable technology and those date back to the 13th Century, and smart watches and fitness trackers have become commonplace, it's a bit of stretch to credit Google for having done all the work here.

Perhaps more importantly are the lessons for developers, legislators and technologists have taken from having hundreds of thousands of smart glasses in circulation and seeing how people use them. And discovering new uses for them. Glass allowed Catalin Voss to build a tool which recognised facial expressions and read emotions - and, as Wired explains, that's something with the potential to really make a difference for some people:

For Voss, Wall, and their colleague Nick Haber, a Stanford post-doc, the idea is that their Glass software will help autistic children recognize and understand facial expressions and, through them, emotions. It operates like a game or, as Voss calls it, an “interactive learning experience.” Through the Google Glass eyewear, children are asked to, say, find someone who is happy. When they look at someone who is smiling, the app recognizes this and awards “points.”

The system also records what the child does for later review. “You can plot, as they wear the glasses, how they’re improving, where they’re improving,” Wall says. “You can look at video to understand why.”

And applications like that - rather than the ability to take sneak shots or look a bit hipster - may be where the true future of where Google Glass and its successors take us.

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