Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Web Secret 433: Pokemon GO

Unless you have been living off the grid, you have at least heard of Pokemon GO.

This is what you need to understand about this worldwide phenomenon.

Pokemon - stands for "Pocket Monsters" - was originally a Game Boy video game, a card game, and a TV series. If you grew up during the 90s or raised a child during the 90s, you know all about this early phase.

Players of the games, AKA Pokémon Trainers, had two general goals. They had to complete the Pokédex by collecting all of the available Pokémon species found in the fictional region where that game takes place; and to train a team of powerful Pokémon from those they have caught to compete against teams owned by other Trainers, and eventually win the fictional Pokémon League. The whole thing was G rated and geared towards elementary school children.

Fast forward 20+ years and those 90s children are now 20 something Millenials. They are very nostalgic about the 90s. And their parents, Gen Xers and Boomers, also know about Pokemon because - well you had no choice - the TV series was on all the time, the cards were all over the house and you were pressured to buy the latest Pokemon game cartridge by your addicted progeny.

On July 6, 2016, (a date that will live in infamy,) Pokemon GO was released. It is a free-to-play location-based augmented reality mobile game - aka an app. To say that this game became a monster of a global phenomenon doesn't even begin to do it justice.

Within 1 week of the release, it seemed like everyone had downloaded the interface and was completely obsessed. A very, very small minority of Millenials resisted the lure. The Gen Xers and Boomers were sucked in too.

Here is a very brief synopsis of the game:

After logging into the app for the first time, the player creates their avatar.

After the avatar is created, it is displayed at the player's current location along with a map of the player's immediate surroundings. Features on the map include a number of PokéStops and Pokémon gyms. These are typically located at public art installations, historical markers, historic buildings, cenotaphs and other memorials, public parks and fountains, places of worship, and other points of cultural significance.

As players travel the real world, the avatar moves along the game's map. Different Pokémon species reside in different areas of the world.

When a player encounters a Pokémon, they use their smart phone camera to view it and capture it.

The ultimate goal of the game is to complete the entries in the Pokédex, a comprehensive Pokémon encyclopedia, by capturing and evolving to obtain the original 151 Pokémon.

Now you are ready to watch the trailer for the game:

If you live in a big city, you will come across groups of (usually young) adults, standing on the street, with an arm extended, holding a smartphone, as they try to capture the Pokemon in that location. Everywhere.

The bad news first: it's an addiction. People have gotten into accidents because they are hunting Pokemon while driving, walking, biking, etc. At least one person reportedly quit their job to hunt full time. One of my sons reported seeing a group of police officers hunting together instead of protecting the city.

The good news: geeks are emerging from their homes to participate, previously sedentary humans are walking miles to capture the monsters, and there is a camaraderie developing between hunters.

One of the early proponents of the mental health benefits of the game is Dr. John Grohol, the founder of Psych Central, and an expert in technology's impact on human behavior and mental health.

And Grohol has never seen anything like Pokemon Go.

"In terms of the phenomena of people expressing the benefits of playing the game to their real-world mental health status, I think that's very unique ..." he says.

Twitter is flooded with stories about Pokemon Go's impact on players' anxiety and depression, with thousands of people lauding the game for getting them out of the house and making it easier to interact with friends and strangers alike. These simple acts are crucial milestones for anyone struggling with depression, Grohol says.

Watch with me as Pokemon Go evolves from game to business application to mental health tool. 

And revolutionizes the gaming industry.

And maybe more.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Web Secret 432: Moment of Nature part 2

This is the second of two blog posts each featuring one of the two letters I think are the most beautiful I have ever read.

If you want to understand my rationale for doing this read Web Secret 431.

Sullivan Ballou was a 32 year old major in the Union Army when he wrote a final message to his young wife a week before he fought in the First Battle of Bull Run, in 1861.

I first learned about this letter when I heard the song it inspired. John Kander (composer of the musical Cabaret) wrote a dramatic monologue featuring its text for famous opera soprano Renée Fleming. Here she is performing "A Letter from Sullivan Ballou":

I was so moved that I searched until I found the letter on the Internet. Then I heard it again when film maker Ken Burns used its text in his wonderful documentary "The Civil War".

Here it is:

"July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah: The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days — perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more …

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt …

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me — perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness …

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights … always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again …

Sullivan (Ballou)"

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Web Secret 431: Moment of nature

Since 1979, every CBS Sunday Morning show ends with a "Moment in Nature."

"Sunday Morning" is a news magazine à la "60 minutes." The "Moment In Nature" segment is unique in broadcast television and is beloved by viewers.

Because it has absolutely nothing to do with the broadcast that precedes it.

It consists of a few minutes of footage of some incredibly beautiful place in the U.S. accompanied by purely ambient audio and natural sounds. So if the "Moment" consists of a bunch of flamingos in Florida, you will probably only hear some wings flapping and the sound of surf.

It's as if the producer decided, f*ck it - no matter what is going on in this crazy world - I am going to show you something utterly beautiful and completely non commercial.

Just because.

So in that spirit, these next two blog posts are going to consist of the two letters I think are the most beautiful I have ever read.

The first is by Millicent Rogers.

Millicent was a socialite, fashion icon, and art collector. She was the granddaughter of Standard Oil tycoon Henry Huttleston Rogers, and an heiress to his wealth. She came to Taos, New Mexico after a failed love affair with Clark Gable and was an early champion of Native American jewelry and pottery, as well as a collector of 16th century Spanish colonial artifacts. These collections can be viewed in the beautiful museum which bears her name.

In 1953, shortly before her death, Millicent wrote the following letter to her son Paul Peralta Ramos. In it she eloquently explains her love for Taos and her personal credo:

"Dear Paulie,

Did i ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the Earth, so that I felt the Sun on my Surface and the rain. I felt the Stars and the growth of the Moon, under me, rivers ran. And against me were the tides. The waters of rain sank into me. And I thought if I stretched out my hands they would be Earth and green would grow from me. And I knew that there was no reason to be lonely that one was everything, and Death was as easy as the rising sun and as calm and natural-that to be enfolded in Earth was not an end but part of oneself, part of every day and night that we lived, so that Being part of the Earth one was never alone. And all the fear went out of me- with a great, good stillness and strength.

If anything should happen to me now, ever, just remember all this. I want to be buried in Taos with the wide sky-Life has been marvelous, all the experiences good and bad I have enjoyed, even pain and illness because out of it so many things were discovered. One has so little time to be still, to lie still and look at the Earth and the changing colours and the Forest - and the voices of people and clouds and light on water, smells and sound and music and the taste of wood smoke in the air.

Life is absolutely beautiful if one will disassociate oneself from noise and talk and live according to one's inner light. Don't fool yourself more than you can help. Do what you want-do what you want knowingly. Anger is a curtain that people pull down over life so that they can only see through it dimly-missing all the savor, the instincts-the delight-they feel safe only when they can down someone. And if one does that they end by being to many, more than one person, and life is dimmed-blotted and blurred!- I've had a most lovely life to myself- I've enjoyed it as thoroughly as it could be enjoyed. And when my time comes, no one is to feel that I have lost anything of it-or be too sorry-I've been in all of you- and will go on Being. So remember it peacefully - take all the good things that your life put there in your eyes- and they, your family, children, will see through your eyes. My love to all of you."

Just because.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Web Secret 430: you read it here first

Any Matrix fans in the audience?

There is a scene at the beginning of the movie where agents hold Neo down and forcefully insert an insectlike device into his stomach.

Later the bloody wriggling insect is removed from Neo. Is it a machine? Is it an organism? Something in between?


That movie was made 17 years ago.

That creature immediately came to mind when I read "Stingray Robot Powered by Light, and Living Rat Cells," an article by Steph Yin published in a July 2016 issue of the New York Times:

"If a robot is made of living cells, can respond to external stimuli and has the ability to compute and coordinate movement, is it alive?

This question can be posed of a new, tiny stingray-inspired robot that is able to follow pulses of light to swim through an obstacle course.

'It’s not an organism per se, but it’s certainly alive,' said Kevin Kit Parker, a professor of bioengineering at Harvard University and one of the authors of a paper detailing the robot, published in Science on Thursday.

To create the robot, which measures 16 millimeters in length, Dr. Parker’s team layered heart cells from rats onto a gold and silicone scaffold that they designed to resemble a stingray. They then injected a gene into the cells that caused them to contract when exposed to blue light...

The new artificial stingray advances the nascent field of 'biohybrid' robotics, which integrates mechanical engineering with genetic and tissue engineering..."

I encourage you to go to the url, and look at the photos that accompany the article. This man made stingray looks so lifelike that it blows my mind.

What will this technology do for us in the future?

Something amazing.

You read it here first.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Web Secret 429: Janusian thinking

Albert Rothenberg MD is an American psychiatrist who has carried out long term research on the creative process in literature, art, science and psychotherapy.

Albert was especially interested in cognitive processes that disrupt the past and the usual and lead to creation.

He identified a process he termed “Janusian thinking,” named after Janus, a Roman God who has two faces, each looking in the opposite direction. Janusian thinking is the ability to imagine two opposites or contradictory ideas, concepts, or images, existing simultaneously. It is a thought experiment.

And we care about this because....

...More and more experts in diverse fields believe that the 21st century requires non linear problem solving.

For example, in a 2002 article in Military Review, two military strategists wrote "that the current U.S. approach to military operations ... is too linear for today’s contemporary operating environment. They argue that future war fighters must move beyond linear thought and action to a realm of thinking and acting that recognizes and accepts paired yet opposite ideas and actions: 'Look before you leap' and at the same time understand that 'he who hesitates is lost.'"

Think about it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Web Secret 428: the Bechdel Test for computer technology

The Bechdel test is a well-known measurement of gender bias in movies that originated in 1985 in the comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For."

To pass the test, a movie must have three things:
  1. Two female characters (preferably named),
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something other than a man.
Almost half of 2015’s top movies failed the Bechdel test.

Think that's disturbing?

Now think about computer technology, anything having to do with computer technology, such as social media, the algorithms underlying all the electronic devices we use on a daily basis, and AI.


Before you do that, let me tell you about the first social media conference I attended in 2008. Facebook was 4 years old. There were hundreds of attendees at the Javitz Center - Manhattan's cavernous convention hall.

I counted exactly 5 women attendees.


It's gotten a bit better since then.

But overwhelmingly - computer tech is a male dominated field.

And as I waded through the crowd of 25 year old men, I thought to myself, "Wow - I have a feeling this is going to be a problem - what is the world missing out on because the female perspective is absent?"

That question is being answered every day since then:

1. no women, no color. Overwhelmingly, computers, smartphones and gizmos of every kind are grey, grey, grey. As a basis of comparison, Urban Decay's Vice Lipstick collection comes in 100 different shades.

2. Okay, that was a little sarcastic. How about most gaming consoles feature first person shooters hunting monsters and overly voluptuous women in scanty outfits?

3. Still sarcastic. Let's get serious. How about a June 2016 New York Times editorial "Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem" ? I quote:

"...the very real problems with artificial intelligence today, which may already be exacerbating inequality in the workplace, at home and in our legal and judicial systems [is that] sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are being built into the machine-learning algorithms that underlie the technology behind many 'intelligent' systems that shape [who we are.]"

The article continues:

"We need to be vigilant about how we design and train these machine-learning systems, or we will see ingrained forms of bias built into the artificial intelligence of the future.

Like all technologies before it, artificial intelligence will reflect the values of its creators. So inclusivity matters... Otherwise, we risk constructing machine intelligence that mirrors a narrow and privileged vision of society, with its old, familiar biases and stereotypes."

How to get more women, more minorities, older people and other constituencies involved in computer tech? It's not going to be easy.

But it has to happen.

And soon.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Web Secret 427: Utomic smartphone case

My twin children destroy cell phones.

Over the course of the ten or so years they have owned such devices, their phones have been:
  • immersed in a swimming pool
  • swept away at sea
  • left outside in a downpour
  • dropped on concrete
and more.

When one of them cracked her phone for the 5th time, I knew it was time for something different. I read about a new, very minimal case system that combines 4 rubber bumpers and state of the art tempered glass cover that offers unparalleled drop protection. It's called Utomic.

OK, so the system doesn't make the phone waterproof. But the phone no longer breaks when dropped.

And for now, that will have to do.