Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Web Secret #361: disconnecting

There have been many articles about the importance of disconnecting in our wired world.

But there is room for one more, as demonstrated by a wonderful post "What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space" by Scott Belsky.

Here is my condensed version:

Interruption-free space is sacred. Yet, in the digital era we live in, we are losing hold of the few sacred spaces that remain untouched by email, the internet, people, and other forms of distraction. We are depriving ourselves of every opportunity for disconnection. And our imaginations suffer the consequences.

Why do we give up our sacred space so easily? Because space is scary. During these temporary voids of distraction, our minds return to the uncertainty and fears that plague all of us. To escape this chasm of self-doubt and unanswered questions, you tune into all of the activity and data for reassurance.

Belsky argues that we have always sought a state of constant connection from the dawn of time, it’s just never been possible until now.

The need to be connected is, in fact, very basic in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the psychological theory that explains the largest and most fundamental human desires. Our need for a sense of belonging comes right after physical safety. We thrive on friendship, family, and the constant affirmation of our existence and relevance. Our self-esteem is largely a product of our interactions with others.

It is now possible to always feel loved and cared for, thanks to the efficiency of our “comment walls” on Facebook and seamless connection with everyone we’ve ever known.

So what’s the solution? How do we reclaim our sacred spaces?

Here are five potential mindsets and fixes for your consideration:

1. Rituals for unplugging.
The notion of a day every week reserved for reflection has become more important than ever before. Perhaps you will reserve one day on the weekend where you force yourself to disconnect? At first, such efforts will feel very uncomfortable. You will deal with a bout of “connection withdrawal,” but stay with it.

2. Daily doses of deep thinking.
When it comes to scheduling, we will need to allocate blocks of time for deep thinking.

3. Meditation to clear the mind.
There is no better mental escape from our tech-charged world than the act of meditation. If only for 15 minutes, the ability to steer your mind away from constant stimulation is downright liberating.

4. Self-awareness and psychological investment.
Our most basic fears and desires, both conscious and subconscious, are soothed by connectivity and a constant flow of information. It is supremely important that we recognize the power of our insecurities and, at the very least, acknowledge where our anxiety comes from.

5. Protect the state of no-intent.
When you’re driving or showering, you’re letting your mind wander because you don’t have to focus on anything in particular. If you do carve out some time for unobstructed thinking, be sure to free yourself from any specific intent.

And I have nothing to add to that.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Web Secret #360: Talkspace

There is a new app called Talkspace.

For $25 a week, a client can text an assigned therapist whenever they want, and the therapist texts back when he/she can.

Unlimited.

Anonymous.



Are you cringing?

The app has gotten millions of dollars in funding.

It's here to stay.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Web Secret #359: Operation War Diary

Want to save mankind?

Check out Zooniverse, a website that enables everyone to participate in legitimate online science projects.

For example, you can:

Explore Mars - help planetary scientists discover what the weather is like on the red planet.

Classify over 30 years of tropical cyclone data.

Spy on penguins for science - tag and monitor penguins in remote regions to help scientists understand their lives and environment.

There is a project for everyone.

I love history and so was immediately drawn to Operation War Diary. As the website explains, "the story of the British Army on the Western Front during the First World War is waiting to be discovered in 1.5 million pages of unit war diaries. We need your help to reveal the stories of those who fought in the global conflict that shaped the world we live in today."

Sign me up.

Everything about this research project is state of the art. A 10 minute tutorial teaches you how to digitally classify each diary page by date, place, subject and other indicators. And then you can choose to analyze any one of hundreds of diaries.

What's in it for the world?

Data gathered through Operation War Diary will be used for three main purposes:

1. to enrich The National Archives' catalogue descriptions for the unit war diaries
2. to provide evidence about the experience of named individuals in IWM's Lives of the First World War project
3. to present academics with large amounts of accurate data to help them gain a better understanding of how the war was fought

What's in it for me?

I think you know.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Web Secret #358: Wait But Why

So if you read my last two posts, you know that "Wait But Why" is the blog that saved me from doldrums severe enough that I considered shutting down iWebU.

"Wait But Why" is primarily the work of Tim Urban, who coyly describes the site as "A website for people who like websites."

I would define it as "A website for people who want to be provoked into thinking." Too abstract?

Here is a tour:

In the main section are posts, often lengthy, on topics such as: "What Makes You You", "A Religion for the Nonreligious", "From 1 to 1,000,000," a dissertation about the numbers in our life. It's about philosophy, science, and math and perhaps most importantly, meaning.

"Minis." A Mini is a short version of a Wait But Why post. To qualify as a Mini, it has to be an original post. Topics include "Your Life is Worse When You Know About Dust Mites ", "What Makes a Face Trustworthy?", and "200 People’s New Year’s Resolutions". They are little mental hors d'oeuvres.

"The Shed", consists of carefully curated videos. Topics include "Video Zoom-In on the Largest Image Ever Taken of Andromeda Galaxy", "Fully Disassembled Volkswagen Golf", "Amazing Run-Through of 17 British Accents." It's fun, more light hearted fare.

"The Dinner Table." So imagine you're noshing with a bunch of your smartest friends and you are having an amazing discussion about a really interesting topic. Once a week, "Wait But Why" comes up with a question, and asks this question to its community. The results are published, and include "http://waitbutwhy.com/table/learn-in-10-minutes", "Who From Our Modern Era Will Be Universally Known in the Year 4015?" and "What’s One Book, Movie, Song, Poem, Etc. You’re Grateful For?".

Because of time constraints, I only follow a maximum of 5 blogs at one time. This list tends to stay constant for long periods of time because honestly, there is a lot of really bad content out there.

Guess what? "Wait But Why," you just made my list!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Web Secret #357: Understanding Artificial Intelligence

This is my explanation of part 2 of the mind bending post from the "Wait But Why" blog. In this section, author Tim Urban explains AI (artificial intelligence":

There are three major AI categories:

1) Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI): AI that specializes in one area. There’s AI that can beat the world chess champion in chess, but that’s the only thing it does.

2) Artificial General Intelligence (AGI): Artificial General Intelligence refers to a computer that is as smart as a human across the board—a machine that can perform any intellectual task that a human being can. Creating AGI is a much harder task than creating ANI, and we’ve yet to do it.

3) Artificial Superintelligence (ASI): “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills.”

As of now, humans have conquered the lowest caliber of AI — ANI

The hard parts of trying to build AGI are probably not what you think they are. Build a computer that can multiply two ten-digit numbers in a split second—incredibly easy. Build one that can look at a dog and answer whether it’s a dog or a cat — spectacularly difficult.

So how do we get there?

Here are the three most common strategies:

1) Reverse engineer the brain to figure out how evolution made such a rad thing — optimistic estimates say we can do this by 2030.

2) Try to make evolution do what it did before but for us this time. A group of computers would try to do tasks, and the most successful ones would be bred with each other by having half of each of their programming merged together into a new computer. The less successful ones would be eliminated. Over many, many iterations, this natural selection process would produce better and better computers.

3) Make this whole thing the computer’s problem, not ours. The idea is that we’d build a computer whose two major skills would be doing research on AI and coding changes into itself—allowing it to not only learn but to improve its own architecture.

Sooner or later, one of these three methods will work. Rapid advancements in hardware and innovative experimentation with software are happening simultaneously, and AGI could creep up on us quickly and unexpectedly.

Given the advantages over us that even human intelligence-equivalent AGI would have, it’s pretty obvious that it would only hit human intelligence for a brief instant before racing onwards to the realm of superior-to-human intelligence.

It’ll suddenly be smarter than Einstein and we won’t know what hit us.

And it could happen by 2030.

I encourage everyone to read the entire post - parts 1 and 2. It's such a well executed explanation of some very difficult topics. This is how the post concludes:

"It reminds me of Game of Thrones, where the characters occasionally note, “We’re so busy fighting each other but the real thing we should all be focusing on is what’s coming from north of the wall.”

That’s why people who understand superintelligent AI call it the last invention we’ll ever make — the last challenge we’ll ever face.

So let’s talk about it."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Web Secret #356: What is it like to be standing here?

For the past month, I have been struggling to come up with ideas for blog posts.

I used all my tried and true techniques to get inspired. I watched TED Talks, Stumbled around websites, read issues of Fast Company.

Nothing worked. Nada. I wondered if it was time to end this blog.

But just when I was thinking of throwing in the towel, I came across a fantastic blog, "Wait But Why".

More specifically, I came across a mind bending post on that site, "The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence" by Tim Urban.

Tim begins the post with a quote "We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. — Vernor Vinge." He puts up a graph, showing a stick figure (that's you and me) standing next to a near vertical line symbolizing accelerating human progress. And he asks, "What is it like to be standing here?




He then answers that question, which I will attempt to paraphrase for the sake of brevity:

If we had a time machine, and took a person form the 1500's and brought him to 1750 he wouldn't be that shocked, because 1750 is not that different from 1500.

But take a person from 1750 and bring them to 2015, and it would be impossible for us to understand what it would be like for him to see shiny capsules racing by on a highway, look at someone’s face and chat with them even though they’re on the other side of the country, and worlds of other inconceivable sorcery.

This is all before you show him the Internet or explain things like the International Space Station, the Large Hadron Collider, nuclear weapons, or general relativity. For him, this experience wouldn’t be surprising or shocking or even mind-blowing — those words aren’t big enough. He might actually die.

This pattern—human progress moving quicker and quicker as time goes on — is what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls human history’s Law of Accelerating Returns. This happens because more advanced societies have the ability to progress at a faster rate than less advanced societies—because they’re more advanced.

The movie Back to the Future came out in 1985, and “the past” took place in 1955. In the movie, when Michael J. Fox went back to 1955, he was caught off-guard by the newness of TVs, the prices of soda, the lack of love for shrill electric guitar.

It was a different world, yes — but if the movie were made today and the past took place in 1985, the change would be much greater. The 1985 person would live in a time before personal computers, the Internet, or cell phones. A teenager born in the late 90s would be much more out of place in 1985 than the movie’s Marty McFly was in 1955.

Kurzweil believes that the 21st century will achieve 1,000 times the progress of the 20th century.

If he is correct, then we may be as blown away by 2030 as our 1750 guy was by 2015.
 
So what is it like to stand here?

We have no idea.



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Web Secret #355: Peaky Blinders

The other day I was at a dinner party.

They still exist.

I was seated at a round table (one of three) with 9 other guests. It was a cosmopolitan affair. The person to my left was a political activist from El Salvador. The person to my right was a twenty something artist form Berlin. There was a woman from Liechtenstein. An American specializing in the law pertaining to homeland security.

And what did this group talk about?

The TV shows they were streaming.

Most of them had or were in the process of streaming a Danish TV show called Borgen. Which has been described as the Danish "West Wing." Which I had never heard of.

A few days later, my 21 year old son told me he got a haircut. "It's a new style," he explained to me, "like the Peaky Blinders." Huh? I had him spell it for me. Turns out that the "Peaky Blinders," is a British historical crime drama television series about a gang operating in Birmingham, England, during the aftermath of World War I. I had never heard of it.

Of course with the Internet, I could quickly look up what I knew nothing about. Even though neither "Borgen" nor "Peaky Blinders" has every been broadcast on US TV, you can buy the DVD of "Borgen" on Amazon, and you can stream "Peaky Blinders" on Netflix.

My dinner guests and my son made me feel temporarily culturally illiterate.

In fairness to myself, achieving cultural literacy has become a highly complex affair.

When I was growing up, there was a finite number of TV shows, movies, books, music, and toys that you could access. And for the most part, you could only access your own country's cultural artifacts. In fact, if you lived abroad for two years - as I did between the ages of 10 and 12 - you came back with very little idea about what your friends were talking about. You had missed the TV shows, the movies, the jokes, the slang that had happened while you were out of the country.

Today, technology gives me access to more TV shows, movies, books and other knowledge than I can ever watch or learn in a lifetime. And should you wish to access the cultural heritage of another country, you can do so.

So what does it mean to be culturally literate in 2015?

Damned if I know.