Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Web Secret 554: Bandersnatch

I remember the early "choose your own adventure" video games of the 1980s.

Laborious and slow, black and white and pixelated, it could take half an hour to move a primitive character down a black corridor. You answered questions like: "Does Igor go left or right" by typing in "R-I-G-H-T."

So how does 30 years of technological advances impact an early video game?

You get Bandersnatch, the first ever interactive film. Thank you, Netflix.

Set in the 1980s, Bandersnatch centers on Stefan, an ambitious video game developer. Inspired by his favorite childhood choose your own adventure novel, Bandersnatch, Stefan sets out to create an innovative text-based game where the player's choices influence how the story unfolds.

Every so often, as you watch the film, a text field appears and you have what feels like 15 seconds to make a decision. Does Stephen eat Frosties cereal or the other kind? Does he spill tea on his computer or does he run out of the room? Does he bury the dead body or chop it up? You click on your choice. And your decision gets played out.

Now here is what is truly amazing: the film never stops while you make your selection, and whatever you decide unfolds seamlessly. I was blown away by the sheer technology of it.

The movie typically runs for about 90 minutes, depending on the choices you make at the plot's branching points. Bandersnatch has more than 1 trillion possible permutations of its story, but the piece has "five main endings" that viewers can eventually end up with.

Play Bandersnatch and you are experiencing the future.

Right now.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Web Secret 553: Snopes

In this age of fake news, who tells the truth?

Snopes promises to be "...the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation."

Take this statement: "18 Migrant Children Died in Border Patrol Custody During the Obama Administration."

Snope says the following about it:

"What's True

A 2016 Human Rights Watch report analyzed ICE death reviews of 18 adults who passed away while under detention by U.S. immigration authorities at various facilities between 2012 and 2015.

What's False

We found no documentation supporting the claim that any migrant children, much less 18 of them, died while in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol during the administration of President Barack Obama.

This is followed by an extensive discussion on the origin of the statement and a series of references that support Snopes corrected version.

Not all the statements Snopes dissects are political. Some are nutty social media stories like:

Was a Man Hospitalized After His Apple Airpods Exploded in His Ear? Short answer: No.

Ingesting "a tablespoon" of fruit syrup every 15 minutes for an hour can help someone dealing with vomiting or diarrhea.. Short answer: Unproven.

Snopes is bipartisan:

Did a GoFundMe Campaign to Fund a Border Wall Raise Millions of Dollars Within a Few Days?. Short answer: Yes.

We all need Snopes.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Web Secret 552: A Great F*cking Bag

I don't know what this says about our civilization, but there are endless Kickstarter campaigns featuring bags, backpacks, luggage, and packing systems.

So it takes genius marketing to stand out from the crowd.

Hello, Använda. A Great F*cking Bag.

Anvanda's 2 and a half minute intro video is inspired, simultaneously making fun of the backpack invasion and differentiating themselves from other products with the inspired use of humor and profanity.

Their copy follows in sync with their video and is hilarious.

Study the whole thing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Web Secret 551: Karst Stone Paper

When I work, I always have a notebook in front of me.

There I keep track of ideas, jot down bits of HTML code, write down products I might want to try.

Because I am an extreme stationary nerd, I use different brands of notebooks. I have favored: I was on the lookout for my next favorite notebook when I came across the Australian based Karst Stone Paper company.

The company claims it is possible to make paper without timber and water, without chlorine or acids, without waste, using only a third of the carbon footprint of regular paper using recycled stone.

On the plus side the paper is smoother, brighter, and more durable than traditional paper.

The negative? It's expensive and the notebooks are heavy, not ideal for lugging around in a backpack or a messenger bag.

I ordered one immediately.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Web Secret 550: Apple AirPods

Apple's AirPods are white, wireless headphones.

At $159 a pair, I thought I could live without them. Actually, I thought I could live without wireless headphones altogether.

But then I received a pair as a gift and some of that changed.

Things that didn't change: They are white (boring), and they look odd sticking out of your ears.

Things that changed:
  1. The incredible sense of freedom resulting from being untethered.
  2. The convenience of seeing on my iPhone how much battery life is left.
  3. The way they snap into the portable case that charges them.
  4. The high quality audio - though I can't get them to be as loud as I want - which is probably better for my eardrums.
Now I can't imagine how I lived without them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Web Secret 549: Alexa

My California son came home for Thanksgiving.

He showed up with an Echo Dot, and many many Smart Plugs.

The Echo Dot allows you to access's intelligent personal assistant Alexa through voice commands. You use the Smart Plugs to control the electronic gizmos in your home. All you do is plug the Smart Plug into the wall and then plug your device into the Smart Plug.

Things you can ask Alexa to do:

1. "Alexa, order 100 rolls of toilet paper on Amazon."
2. "Alexa, what is the weather in Samoa?"
3. "Alexa, set timer for three hours, take medicine."
4. "Alexa, turn on Nespresso machine."

Remember the computer on the Enterprise in Star Trek? That was my reference point.

Things I quickly learned about Alexa:
  1. Alexa is not yet perfected so I found myself shouting at her a lot.
  2. I don't want Alexa. I want Alex, preferably with a British accent so I can give free rein to my butler fantasies.
  3. Alexa does a lot of simple stuff which is just easier and quicker to do the old fashioned way - by pressing a button. For example, If Alexa does not obey my command to turn on the Nespresso machine in my hour of need - say every morning when I first wake up - I become very angry and end up disconnecting the Smart Plug and plugging the Nespresso machine back into the plug.
  4. If you live with someone who uses Alexa a lot, say goodbye to peace and quiet as there is always somebody yelling at Alexa or Alexa is rattling on about one thing or another.
  5. Alexa is not remotely wireless - you have to plug in the Echo Dot and plug in every device you want to control with Alexa.
  6. On a final creepy note, Alexa sometimes starts talking about random things without prompting. Very Twilight Zone...
So for me, Alexa is not yet ready for prime time. But I did make a mental note to try her again in a couple of years.

Sooner or later, she will be ubiquitous and perfected.

And then...

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Web Secret 548: the free energy principle

Karl Friston is the foremost neuroscientist in the world and on a short list to eventually win the Nobel Prize in Medicine. He has published more than 1,000 academic papers since the turn of the millennium.

I had never heard of him until I read an article in the December 2019 Wired Magazine: The Genius Neuroscientist Who Might Hold the Key to True AI. Let me summarize what may be Friston's greatest contribution to human knowledge.

It's called the free energy principle and it aims to explain how the human brain works.

Friston believes that the best way to think of the brain is as a probability machine. The idea is that brains compute and perceive in a probabilistic manner, constantly making predictions and adjusting beliefs based on what the senses contribute. The brain is an “inference engine” that seeks to minimize “prediction error.”

In seeking to predict what the next wave of sensations is going to tell it—and the next, and the next—the brain is constantly making inferences and updating its beliefs based on what the senses relay back, and trying to minimize prediction-signal errors.

Free energy is the difference between the states you expect to be in and the states your sensors tell you that you are in. Or, to put it another way, when you are minimizing free energy, you are minimizing surprise.

A single-celled organism has the same imperative to reduce surprise that a brain does. According to Friston, any biological system that resists a tendency to disorder and dissolution will adhere to the free energy principle—whether it’s a protozoan or a pro basketball team.

When the brain makes a prediction that isn’t immediately borne out by what the senses relay back, it can minimize free energy in one of two ways: It can revise its prediction—absorb the surprise, concede the error, update its model of the world—or it can act to make the prediction true.

If I infer that I am touching my nose with my left index finger, but my proprioceptors tell me my arm is hanging at my side, I can minimize my brain’s raging prediction-error signals by raising that arm up and pressing a digit to the middle of my face.

Why should you care?

The free energy principle is also a theory of mental illness. When the brain assigns too little or too much weight to evidence pouring in from the senses, trouble occurs. Someone with schizophrenia, for example, may fail to update their model of the world to account for sensory input from the eyes. Where one person might see a friendly neighbor, a schizophrenic might see a demon.

If you think about psychiatric conditions, and indeed most neurological conditions, they are just broken beliefs or false inference—hallucinations and delusions,” Friston says.

So: The free energy principle offers a unifying explanation for how the mind works and a unifying explanation for how the mind malfunctions. It stands to reason, then, that it might also put us on a path toward building a mind from scratch.

And that dear reader, is where I leave you.

Read the article.