Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Web Secret 486: TouchNote

In the prescient science fiction movie "Her," set in a near future, the main character works as a professional writer, composing letters for people who are unable to write letters of a personal nature.

This makes perfect sense. Consider that as early as 1982, futurist John Naisbitt coined the expression "High tech, high touch" in his book Megatrends.

He theorized that in a world of technology, people will long for personal, human contact.

So when was the last time you wrote a postcard?

It used to be "de rigueur" to send a postcard from abroad, when vacationing.

Children looked forward to getting these cards for their scenic panoramas and exotic stamps.

I haven't sent a postcard in years. But all that might change because of a new app "TouchNote."

Mailing a postcard is easy because all you do is:

1. select an image from your photos
2. write a caption
3. add an address from your contacts
4. press send.

Postage is free and the whole thing will set you back $2.99.

The more postcards you send, the less it costs.


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.