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Improve your people skills by talking to a computer

Software for social skills

"MIT scientists have developed a software system to help people improve their conversational and interview skills," reports Psych Central. "Researchers developed the software to help people practise their interpersonal skills until they feel more comfortable with situations such as a job interview or a first date. The software, called MACH (My Automated Conversation coacH), uses a computer-generated onscreen face, along with facial, speech and behaviour analysis and synthesis software [and] provides users with feedback on their interactions. … Designed to run on an ordinary laptop, the system uses the computer's webcam to monitor a user's facial expressions and movements, and its microphone to capture the subject's speech."

American TV going to pot

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"Only minutes into this season's Mad Men premiere, Megan Draper giddily pulled out two joints she had hidden in her bikini, and she and Don proceeded to get high, setting the tone for the season," says The Boston Globe. "Reality shows about the cannabis market abound, from Weed Country and Pot Cops to pot-related material in scripted series such as The Office, Parenthood, The Big C, Homeland and Hot in Cleveland. Pot is everywhere on TV. Weed has become almost as common as romantic tensions on sitcoms."

Time is money? Got it

"A U.S. inventor has created an alarm clock that shreds your money if you fail to get up to turn it off," says Orange Co. U.K. "Rich Olson combined a Sparkfun Clockit and a USB paper shredder to create the bizarre machine. He programmed the device to tear up a $1 bill if the user doesn't turn it off within a few seconds."

Rich face housing shortage

In the United States, the wealthy are quickly running out of mansions to buy, reports CNBC. "While housing inventory is falling throughout the country, it's falling especially fast in some of the country's richest ZIP codes. … In the richest ZIP codes, inventory is down more than 50 per cent. In a ZIP code in Carmel, Calif., inventory fell more than 76 per cent over the past year. There were only four homes left on the market priced at $1-million as of the end of May."

Don't have a cow, man!

The Oxford English Dictionary has just added the Bart Simpson catchphrase "to have a cow," reports Its editor says the phrase can be traced back to 1959.

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Australian customers of fast-food chain McDonald's can now track the progress of a meal from the herd of cattle that became the meat in their burgers to the restaurant where they are served, all through a smartphone app, says The Daily Telegraph. The "Track My Macca's" app uses a customer's location and a QR code on the side of a burger's container.

Peer-influence pleasure

"New studies on peer pressure suggest that teens – who often seem to follow each other like lemmings – may do so because their brains derive more pleasure from social acceptance than adult brains, and not because teens are less capable of making rational decisions," says The Wall Street Journal. "And scientists say facing the influence of friends represents an important developmental step for teens on their way to becoming independent-thinking adults. … Peer influence during adolescence is normal and tends to peak around age 15, then decline. … In years past, people thought teens didn't have fully developed frontal lobes, the part of the brain critical for decision-making and other more complex cognitive tasks. But a growing body of work seems to show that teens are able to make decisions as well as adults when they are not emotionally worked up. Instead, the key may be that the reward centres of the brain get more activated in adolescence, and seem to be activated by our peers."

Thought du jour

"Idealist: a cynic in the making."

Irving Layton, Canadian poet (1912-2006)

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