Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Web Secet 485: the computational universe

It's 7:30 am during the week.

I am: 
1. drinking a double espresso
2. solving the NY Times crossword puzzle
3. eating a bowl of cereal.  

Not being a morning person, I am somewhat comatose. In contrast, at that same time, my son Eric is in alert mode. He likes to invade my personal space to lecture me about the topics he finds interesting: science, tech and economics. It is not sufficient for me to nod my head. He expects me to understand what he is talking about.

A few months ago, he told me about the computational universe and a guy called Stephen Wolfram.

This time, I realized I had to shake myself out of my torpor and pay attention.

So should you.

Meet Stephen Wolfram.

Stephen is very, very smart. He is a theoretical physicist, a computer scientist and a mathematician.

And he was the youngest person at age 21 to ever win a MacArthur Genius Award.

Wolfram’s scientific work involves the development of a major new approach to science, in which nature is described in terms of simple computer programs rather than traditional mathematical equations. His work provides new foundations for examining a range of fundamental questions in physics, biology, computer science, mathematics, and other areas.

I know, it gives me a headache. But we must plow on, because this is important folks.

It was previously thought that describing something as complex as the universe would require very complex mathematical proofs.

But Wolfram discovered that profoundly complex systems can be generated by very simple programs.

Here is one of his most important discoveries - he calls it Rule 30.

I'll let him explain:

"Look at each cell and its right hand neighbor. If both of these are white, then take the new color of the cell to be whatever the previous color its left-hand neighbor was. Otherwise, take the new color to be the opposite of that.

The picture shows what happens when one starts with just one black cell and then applies the rule over and over again. And what one sees is something startling - and probably the single most surprising scientific discovery I have ever made. Rather than getting a simple regular pattern as we might expect, the cellular automation instead produces a pattern that seems extremely irregular and complex."

So class, to summarize Rule 30:

1. though the rules are simple

2. and though it starts from a very simple condition - black and white squares

3. the behavior produced is very complex.

This is what is produced after repeating the rule hundreds of times:

Wolfram believes this basic phenomenon is ultimately responsible for most of the complexity we see in nature.

In other words, if we really want to understand nature’s complexity, we need to go beyond mathematics with all its complicated equations and symbols.

Instead we should be embracing “a new kind of science” – as Wolfram titled his book – in which the answers to science’s most difficult problems lie in simple computer programs.


We should be able to use simple programs to decipher the wonders of the universe.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Web Secret 484: Chatbots

When James Vlahos found out his father had terminal cancer, he decided to use cutting edge technology to preserve his memory in the form of a chatbot.

A chatbot, in case the definition has slipped your mind, is a computer program which conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods.

Such programs are often designed to convincingly simulate how a human would behave as a conversational partner.

In a moving article in Wired magazine, A son's race to give his dying father artificial immortality, Vlahos describes his quest to create a chatbot that captures the spirit of his dad.

He decides to use software produced by PullString, a computer conversation company founded by alums of Pixar, to accomplish this.

He examines the morality of creating his Dadbot, even wondering, "In dark moments, I worry that I’ve invested hundreds of hours creating something that nobody, maybe not even I, will ultimately want."

He learns the limitations his Dadbot. And that teams of scientists are trying to win Amazon’s inaugural Alexa Prize, a $2.5 million payout to the competitors who come closest to the goal of building “a socialbot that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes.

After his father dies, Vlahos considers his accomplishment:

"The bot of the future...will be able to know the details of a person’s life far more robustly than my current creation does. It will converse in extended...exchanges, remembering what has been said and projecting where the conversation might be headed. The bot will mathematically model signature linguistic patterns and personality traits, allowing it not only to reproduce what a person has already said but also to generate new utterances. The bot... will even be emotionally perceptive."

He wonders, "Would I even want to talk to a perfected Dadbot? I think so, but I am far from sure."

In the end, when his young son asks to use the Dadbot, he concludes that the value of what he has created lies in preserving his father's memory for his descendants.

What say you, iWebU readers?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Web Secret 483:

Last month a representative from a large substance misuse treatment facility came to the headquarters of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association - my day job.

She told us that most people think their health insurance companies cover treatment - only to find that they cannot afford even the co-pays.

Fortunately, they had had great success in referring patients and their families to a company I had never heard about.

They are the only recovery-based behavioral healthcare lending company in the country, providing low interest loans for behavioral health, substance abuse and/or eating disorder treatment. They help cover the cost of co-pays, high deductibles, or the entire stay.

They make it as easy as possible to apply for a loan. Potential clients answer a few simple questions and are approved instantly. The money is wired into their accounts the next business day and sometimes, that very same day.

I thought you should know.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Web Secret 482: iGen

I'm not going to lie - I am having blogging fatigue.

I find myself thinking more and more about stopping iWebU.

And writing a blog about beauty and fashion. Something frivolous and evanescent.

And then one of my admirers sent me an article from The Atlantic: "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" and I was galvanized all over again.

Jean M. Twenge's article is so important that I am going to summarize her findings here.

First off, you should know that Ms. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me and iGen.

Twenge has been researching generational differences for 25 years. She writes: "Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so...

However, around 2012, she noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states, "...many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear." In all her analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—she had never seen anything like it.

She asked herself, "What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? [I realized] was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent."

She identifiest iGen as "...a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media... Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the Internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’ hand at all times... iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010..."

She believes "...the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans."

It's not all bad: "’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, [have] less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors...The teen birth rate hit an all-time low in 2016, down 67 percent since its modern peak, in 1991."

"Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades."

"The allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. The shift is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.

Today’s teens are also less likely to date...only 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.

The decline in dating tracks with a decline in sexual activity. The drop is the sharpest for ninth-graders, among whom the number of sexually active teens has been cut by almost 40 percent since 1991. The average teen now has had sex for the first time by the spring of 11th grade, a full year later than the average Gen Xer.

Nearly all Boomer high-school students had their driver’s license by the spring of their senior year; more than one in four teens today still lack one at the end of high school...In conversation after conversation, teens described getting their license as something to be nagged into by their parents—a notion that would have been unthinkable to previous generations.

Beginning with Millennials and continuing with iGen, adolescence is contracting again—but only because its onset is being delayed. Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised— 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school.

Why are today’s teens waiting longer to take on both the responsibilities and the pleasures of adulthood? ...iGen teens have more leisure time than Gen X teens did, not less.

...So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.

The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently. It’s not only a matter of fewer kids partying; fewer kids are spending time simply hanging out.

You might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not. The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991.

The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

There’s not a single exception.

The portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation.

One piece of data that indirectly but stunningly captures kids’ growing isolation, for good and for bad: Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.

What’s the connection between smartphones and the apparent psychological distress this generation is experiencing? media ... exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out...

This trend has been especially steep among girls. Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010... ...Social media levy a psychic tax on the teen doing the posting as well, as she anxiously awaits the affirmation of comments and likes.

These more dire consequences for teenage girls could also be rooted in the fact that they’re more likely to experience cyberbullying...Social media give middle- and high-school girls a platform on which to carry out the style of aggression they favor, ostracizing and excluding other girls around the clock.

iGeners sleep with their phones.. They check.. social media right before they go to sleep, and reach for their phone as soon as they wake up in the morning...

The smartphone is also cutting into teens’ sleep...Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991.

The correlation between depression and smartphone use is strong enough to suggest that more parents should be telling their kids to put down their phone.

This will be challenging - Twenge notes "I’ve observed my toddler, barely old enough to walk, confidently swiping her way through an iPad."

Twenge concludes her article on a somewhat optimistic note: "I saw hopeful signs that kids themselves are beginning to link some of their troubles to their ever-present phone."

I wasn't convinced.

This is something all of us, every generation, is going to have to think about and address.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Web Secret 481: Ti Arto Titanium Pen

I have a thing for pens.

I have blogged about this before - on several different occasions.

So if you don't share my addiction, skip this post.

Before, when I wrote "pens," I only meant fountain pens.

With a broad, preferably double broad nib.

Until now.

Hello Big Idea Design's Ti Arto Titanium Pen.

What's special about the Ti Arto?

Be still my heart - it accepts 200 different kinds of refills!

I know.

That's amazing.

Because, I can fit it with a Zebra LH 1.6 mm ballpoint pen refill. A broad, very broad point.

As I wrote in my review for Jet Pens:

Here's what you do:
1. take the pen apart
2. throw out the refill that comes with the pen
3. load pen with Zebra LH-1.6 Ballpoint Pen Refill - 1.6 mm
4. Freak out at how cool this pen is and how smooth it writes.

'Nuff said.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Web Secret 480: Beautycounter

 iWebU has a new look! Hope you like it!

This is a public service announcement.

Are you a person?

Do you:

1. Use makeup?
2. Wash your face?
3. Wash your body?

If you answered "YES" to any of these questions, then you need to know a dirty little secret:

When it comes to the personal care industry, US companies are allowed to use harmful ingredients and make their own judgments about safety.


In the European Union 1,400 chemicals are banned or restricted in personal care products. The United States has only partially banned 30 to date.

I wonder who benefits from this lack of regulation...

But I digress.

Lucky for us, Gregg Renfrew was horrified by this discovery and started Beautycounter, a line of bath, hair, beauty and skin care products that promises to never use products that are toxic.

Cue the video:

You can buy the products online, or with the help of my wonderful consultant Karen Duncan.

She can be contacted at

If you are fortunate enough to live in the New York tri-state area, she will even make a house call.

Stay safe.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Web Secret 479.5: Please update your account to enable third party hosting

Dear iWebU fans:

With zero notice, Photobucket announced via a spam like image and text (that appears at the bottom of my blog posts) that it wants thousands of bloggers to pay them $399 a year to host their photos.

Because I have been writing this blog since 2008 and have written close to 500 posts, it is physically impossible for me to fix every image on every post.

I am still working on a fix, but in the mean time, sincere apologies for the problem.