Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What I've Been Reading

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. If you have missed all the recent advancements in AI, then this book will bring help you up-to date with "reality". Personally, I didn't learn anything new from the book but it's well written and especially the later chapters are insightful.

Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God’s gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences.

- Freeman Dyson

Three sets of winners in the second machine age:
The first two sets of winners are those who have accumulated significant quantities of the right capital assets. These can be either nonhuman capital (such as equipment, structures, intellectual property, or financial assets), or human capital (such as training, education, experience, and skills). Like other forms of capital, human capital is an asset that can generate a stream of income. A well-trained plumber can earn more each year than an unskilled worker, even if they both work the same number of hours. The third group of winners is made up of the superstars among us who have special talents— or luck.

Americans nearly doubled the amount of leisure time they spent on Internet between 2000 and 2011. This implies that they valued it more than the other ways they could spend their time. By considering the value of users’ time and comparing leisure time spent on the Internet to time spent in other ways, Erik and Joo Hee estimated that the Internet created about $ 2,600 of value per user each year. None of this showed up in the GDP statistics but if it had, GDP growth— and thus productivity growth— would have been about 0.3 percent higher each year. In other words, instead of the reported 1.2 percent productivity growth for 2012, it would have been 1.5 percent.

As Paul Samuelson and Bill Nordhaus put it, “While the GDP and the rest of the national income accounts may seem to be arcane concepts, they are truly among the great inventions of the twentieth century.” 27 But the rise in digital business innovation means we need innovation in our economic metrics. If we are looking at the wrong gauges, we will make the wrong decisions and get the wrong outputs. If we measure only tangibles, then we won’t catch the intangibles that will make us better off. If we don’t measure pollution and innovation, then we will get too much pollution and not enough innovation. Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.

As more data become available and as the economy continues to change, the ability to ask the right questions will become even more vital. No matter how bright the light is, you won’t find your keys by searching under a lamppost if that’s not where you lost them. We must think hard about what it is we really value, what we want more of, and what we want less of. GDP and productivity growth are important, but they are means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. Do we want to increase consumer surplus? Then lower prices or more leisure might be signs of progress, even if they result in a lower GDP. And, of course, many of our goals are nonmonetary. We shouldn’t ignore the economic metrics, but neither should we let them crowd out our other values simply because they are more measurable.

On Technological Unemployment:
The argument that technology cannot create ongoing structural unemployment, rather than just temporary spells of joblessness during recessions, rests on two pillars: 1) economic theory and 2) two hundred years of historical evidence. But both of these are less solid than they first appear.

There is no ‘iron law’ that technological progress must always be accompanied by broad job creation.

In the long run, low wages will be no match for Moore’s Law. Trying to fend off advances in technology by cutting wages is only a temporary protection. It is no more sustainable than asking folk legend John Henry to lift weights to better compete with a steam-powered hammer.

The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty. A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which many people are poor and jobless. Many of today’s problems in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods— crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization, and so on— are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work.

- William Julius Wilson summarized a long career’s worth of findings in his 1996 book 

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor.

Quote of the Day

Despite the enormous quantity of books, how few people read! And if one reads profitably, one would realize how much stupid stuff the vulgar herd is content to swallow every day.

- Voltaire

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

This Wiener Dog is The First Cloned Pet!

Where God Stays

It’s called Ishurdi. It means ‘where God stays,’” Sarker Protick says as he tells me about the district in Bangladesh where he’s been photographing his latest project Of River and Lost Lands.

Protick, a lover of rivers and an admirer of “good old American road trip-style photography,” began wandering the length of the Padma river, starting in the north and traveling from district to district towards his home in Dhaka. But when he arrived in Ishurdi district, his plans changed. Something about its landscape haunted him. “In previous places that I had been the land wasn’t that high from the river. Here [in Ishurdi] it was very high, and at the edge of the river the land ended suddenly. It felt like it wasn’t finished properly. That particular area was almost deserted. It all seemed strange, not quite right.”

- More Here

Quote of the Day

The man who is really, thoroughly, and philosophically slothful is the only thoroughly happy man. It is the happy man who benefits the world. The conclusion is inescapable.

- Christopher Morley,  On Laziness

Monday, April 28, 2014

What Makes an Alien Intelligent?

That’s the point of a recent paper in Acta Astronautica by the dolphin-behavior researcher Denise Herzing. She warns against the seductive tendency to turn the question of a creature’s intelligence into one about how similar that creature is to humans. Instead, she writes, we need “a non-human biased definition and measure of intelligence.” This would allow us to identify signs of intelligent life that a human-centric explorer might overlook—for instance, in creatures without limbs to manipulate their surroundings, mouths to make sounds, or even brains to process information. (After all, microbes and plants learn about and react to their environments.)

Herzing’s paper proposes five indicators of intelligence that any given species or machine (she includes artificial intelligence in her assessment) might combine in its own way: first, the size of the subject’s brain (if it has one) relative to the rest of the body; second, the extent to which an entity sends and receives information; third, the degree to which individual members of a species are distinct from one another; fourth, the complexity of the being’s social life; and, fifth, the amount of interaction it has with members of other species. One way to be intelligent is to score high on all five measures, as dolphins do, for instance. Dolphins’ brains are more than four times larger than they “should” be for their body size (only humans have a higher “encephalization quotient,” as this ratio is called). Dolphins send and receive a great deal of information through their sounds and gestures. Each dolphin is a unique individual, with a personality and style that makes it easy to distinguish it from others. Dolphins have elaborate social lives. Finally, dolphins interact in varied ways with other species—with Herzing and her colleagues, for example, and also with other dolphin species, fish, and sharks—instead of ignoring them.

Of course, it’s kind of discouraging to think the human race could spend so much hope and effort on the search for life only to find roving wave-lattices and other beings that won’t, or can’t, talk with us. But you can also see the expansion of our quest for intelligence as exhilarating. It raises the possibility that life out there will be interestingly, perhaps shockingly, different. The alternative possibility is that the problems of life and intelligence are the same everywhere, which means that evolution will keep converging on the same answer on Earth and on any other planet—and what could be less encouraging of space travel than the thought that the journey’s end would reveal more of the same? Better to wrestle at the edges of comprehension than to expect, as Wallace Stevens once wrote of Heaven, “that they should wear our colors there, and pluck the strings of our insipid lutes.”

- More Here

Quote of the Day

The most difficult work many professionals do... is getting someone else to agree with their point of view and take action. The second most difficult work professionals do is developing a point of view in the first place.

- Seth Godin

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Exploring Expressions of Emotions in GitHub Commit Messages

Let's start with anger, an emotion one would expect to be expressed rather frequently in commit messages, as things often go wrong and the process of tracking down bugs and fixing them can be pretty annoying. What stands out in the anger chart compared to the rest is the prominent gap between the "most angry language" VimL and the other languages. Any theories about why this is so?

Regular Expression

Joy / Elation:

For similar reasons one can expect anger one can also expect joy. Commits often solve problems, which should make developers happy. While I'm at it, I decided to omit the word "happy" itself. It is used frequently, but often in phrases like "make X happy" or "X is happy", e. g. add readme to make github happy or in negations like tar is not happy on linux - grr, not really indicating a joyful experience.

Regular Expression

To detect amusement I heavily relied on Internet slang expressions like "lol" or "rofl" and onomatopoeia like "haha" or "hehe". Looking at the numbers programming cannot be very amusing, but there are probably better ways recognize this emotion.

Regular Expression

My attempt to detect surprise, was the least satisfying regarding the low numbers, except for sadness which I left out for that reason. There would have been more surprise if I included "wow", but also more "World of Warcraft". Still, I'm a bit surprised of the result, not because Perl is the winner, but because PHP does not seem to surprise people that often, which does not reflect my experience with this language at all.

Regular Expression

Issues / Bugs:
Every developer knows that bugs creep into code all the time, so it's no surprise that messages about them are by far the most frequent ones compared to everything else in this analysis. Something that becomes even more apparent considering the few words I looked for. A fun fact I have to add: 48.4% of all messages containing "IE", "InternetExplorer" or "Internet Explorer" also satisfy the issue detecting regex below. It's probably so few because I omitted the word problem.

Regular Expression

Swearing (NSFW):
Now to the final and most hilarious part of this analysis: exploring occurrences of swear words, which likely indicate some kind of issue with the code, language, framework or whatever. The chart looks pretty balanced compared to the previous ones and VimL wins again. Assembling a list of swear words is pretty hard. You easily end up with hundreds or even thousands of words and variations, so you somehow need to limit them. One group of words I left out are those referring to genitals, because there is such a wealth of expressions and running some queries indicated that they are used rarely in commit messages.

Regular Expression

- More Here

The Animated Genome

Image of a sticker figure man waving The Animated Genome is a 5-minute film featuring innovative production design by Sanan Media.  The music is Patterns by Danny Elfman.

Using disarmingly simple animations of 2-D people, animals, and molecules, Sanan transmits more information about DNA and the human genome using clever images and brisk movement than is typically conveyed by traditional (and often less enjoyable) presentations. The Animated Genome is gracefully produced with an engaging style, a sharp sense of humor, and scientific accuracy.

In a barrage of perfectly overlapped fundamentals of genomics the animation clearly and simply explains  DNA’s triplet code, DNA replication, the ability to offset some genetic tendencies with diet and exercise,  sickle cell anemia, and forensic and genealogical uses of DNA.

“DNA is pretty durable,” we learn. It “can last for 100,000 years if you don’t get cremated.”

Whether you’re looking for entertaining graphics, a way to impress your significant other, or a discussion starter for the classroom, this amazing animation is well worth five minutes of your time.

- Check out the video here

Quote of the Day

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

- Leo Tolstoy

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Wisdom Of The Week

In fact, the Gettysburg Address must rank high among the greatest speeches anywhere. It is right up there with the Apology of Socrates and the Funeral Oration of Pericles, with the added benefit that Lincoln's was actually written and delivered by him, whereas the speeches by Socrates and Pericles come to us secondhand, so to speak, from Plato and Thucydides. Those ancient Greek speeches may or (more likely) may not have actually been delivered in the literary form in which they have become immortal. By contrast, Lincoln's speech arrived at its fame without editorial assistance. 

Fascinating piece by Diana Schuab on Lincoln at Gettysburg (an excellent lesson on how to speak and write to move people and get things done):

The Gettysburg Address is emphatically a war speech — a speech designed to rally the North to stay the course. Many college students today do not pick up on this fact. Not knowing much history, but aware that Lincoln is beloved for his kindliness and his summons "to bind up the nation's wounds," they tend to read Lincoln's Second Inaugural back into the Gettysburg Address. They assume that he is commemorating all the fallen (and they like him for his supposed inclusiveness, especially in contrast to the bombast and arrogance of Pericles). Perhaps their misreading might be excused, since a most unusual war speech it is.

Lincoln never mentions the enemy, or rather he mentions them only by implication. When he speaks of "those who here gave their lives that that nation might live," his audience then would have been acutely aware that there were others who gave their lives that that nation might die, that it might no longer be the United States. The cemetery that was dedicated at Gettysburg was exclusively a Union cemetery. In fact, in the weeks before the dedication, the townspeople had witnessed the re-interment process, as thousands of the battle dead were exhumed from the shallow graves in which they had hastily been placed by those same local citizens back in the sweltering days of July. As they were uncovered, Union bodies were painstakingly identified and separated from Confederate bodies. While the rebels were simply reburied, coffinless, deeper in the ground where they were found (to be reclaimed later by their home states), the loyal dead were removed, further sorted into their military units, and placed in coffins and tidy lines, awaiting honorable burial in the new cemetery.

Lincoln's abstraction from the enemy highlights the very abstract character of the entire speech. No specifics are given. There isn't a proper noun to be found, with the single exception of God. Thus, there is no mention of Gettysburg, just "a great battle-field." There is no mention of America, just "this continent." There is no mention of the United States, just "a new nation" and "that nation" and "this nation." There is no mention of the parties to the conflict, no North or South, no Union or Confederacy, just "a great civil war." Lincoln speaks of "our fathers," but no names are given. And although the opening clause, "four score and seven years ago," does refer to a specific date, Lincoln has obscured it by giving the lapse of time in Biblical language and then by requiring the listener to subtract 87 from 1863 in order to arrive at the date of 1776.

The tremendous abstraction or generality of the speech is part of what explains its ability to speak to people in different eras and cultures who have no connection to the events at Gettysburg, and yet feel, as Lincoln might say, that they are "blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh" of those spoken of there, or more accurately of those spoken to there. The addressees of the speech are identified simply as "we," "the living." Refusing to dwell long among the dead, since words are inadequate to the act of consecration, Lincoln redeploys his words, turning them from mere saying into their own form of deed. He summons the living to "the unfinished work" and swears them to "the great task remaining." He turns an elegy into a call of duty.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln calls upon the living to resolve three things: one, "that these dead shall not have died in vain"; two, "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom"; and three, "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Although all three resolutions are, as they must be, in the future tense, the first and third are also formulated in the negative. We have two "shall nots" and a "shall" (again suggestive of a balance between the conserving and progressing tendencies).

The first "shall not" looks backward. We must push on to victory for the sake of the fallen. We do this in remembrance of them, so their sacrifice will not have been needless. Lincoln binds his listeners not just to the fathers in piety, but devotedly to one another: the brave men "here," the honored dead "here." F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded his short story "The Swimmers" by saying that America, "having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men....It was a willingness of the heart." Of course, there are times when more "patriot graves" are not the solution. The reason more of that "last full measure of devotion" is called for "here" (repeated eight times) is entwined with "that cause" for which "these honored dead" died.

Skipping for the moment over the second resolution, the final resolution explains "that cause" as the fate of self-government. We continue the fight so that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Although Lincoln uses the future tense, his words do not soar into the empyrean. Not perishing is the aim. Lincoln is concerned as much with the survival as the perfection of democracy. Yet, survival isn't a small aim; it might even be earth shaking, since the Union preserved will constitute the needed proof that a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition of equality can indeed endure. The Union has moral content and is worth saving.

What do Lincoln's weighty prepositions (government of, by, and for the people) tell us about that moral content? In Lockean terms, government of the people refers to the initial formation of the body politic — legitimate government is based on the consent of the governed; government by the people refers to the specific form that consent takes in a constitutional democracy, where there is ongoing consent through regular elections by the people; finally, government for the people means for their benefit — government must pursue the common good.

The Importance of Kindness - George Saunder

This is an animated adaptation of the speech George Saunders delivered last year at Syracuse University and a book version of his speech Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness was released this week.

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: 

(1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); 
(2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and 
(3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition -- recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard -- it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Friday, April 25, 2014

A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science

- via here

The Wisdom of (Little) Crowds

The problem with big groups is this: a faction of the group will follow correlated cues–in other words, the cues that look the same to many individuals. If a correlated cue is misleading, it may cause the whole faction to cast the wrong vote. Couzin and Kao found that this faction can drown out the diversity of information coming from the uncorrelated cue. And this problem only gets worse as the group gets bigger.

Small groups, Kao and Couzin found, can escape this trap. That’s because probability works differently in small groups as opposed to large ones. It’s not unheard of, for example, to roll the same number a few times in a row. But it’s really weird to do so a thousand times in a row. Likewise, in a small decision-making group, a lot of individuals may end up using uncorrelated cues–the ones that give wisdom to crowds.

Couzin and Kao’s analysis, which has just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, doesn’t prove that the wisdom of big crowds is a fatally flawed idea. But it does serve as a warning that even simple factors can have a big impact on how groups make decisions. And it may help to explain how real animals form groups.

When scientists first came to appreciate how groups can make decisions, a question naturally arose: why don’t all animals live in gigantic groups? Some researchers argued that big groups had drawbacks that balanced the advantage they offered in making good decisions.

But Couzin and Kao wonder if such drawbacks don’t, in fact, exist. Perhaps animals live in smaller groups because smaller groups are better at making decisions.

Even the animals that do live in big groups may not actually be solving problems en masse. Only a small fraction of the group may actually be casting votes, while the rest follow their lead.

Couzin and Kao’s work also raises some questions about how we humans make decisions. If people are basing their decisions on the same information, they may be more prone to bad decisions in big groups. All things being equal, smaller groups might do better. And big groups might improve their choices if people avoided relying on the same sources of information.

- Carl Zimmer

Quote of the Day

Montessori classrooms emphasize self-directed learning, hands-on engagement with a wide variety of materials (including plants and animals), and a largely unstructured school day. And in recent years they’ve produced alumni including the founders of Google (Larry Page and Sergey Brin), Amazon (Jeff Bezos), and Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales). These examples appear to be part of a broader trend. Management researchers Jeffrey Dyer and Hal Gregersen interviewed five hundred prominent innovators and found that a disproportionate number of them also went to Montessori schools, where “they learned to follow their curiosity.” As a Wall Street Journal blog post by Peter Sims put it, “the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite, which are so overrepresented by the school’s alumni that one might suspect a Montessori Mafia.” Whether or not he’s part of this mafia, Andy will vouch for the power of SOLEs.

- Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What I've Been Reading

In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of 38 years, on the eve of the calends of March [ie the last day of February], the anniversary of his birth, Michel de Montaigne, bored for a long time by his bondage at the Court of Parliament [in Bordeaux, where he served as an officer preparing case summaries for the magistrates] and by his public duties, still feeling full of energy, came to rest on the bosom of the learned virgins [ie the Muses] in calm and serenity; he will spend there the remaining days of his life.

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing by Andrew Smart. A special book for someone who looks up to Montaigne; his wisdom and lifestyle are now being vindicated by neuroscience.

The definition of idleness I explore in this book is the antithesis of busyness: perhaps doing one or two things a day, crucially on an internally imposed schedule. Chronic busyness is bad for your brain , and over the long-term busyness can have serious health consequences. In the short term, busyness destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social— and it can damage your cardiovascular health.

What follows is an exploration of what our amazing brains are doing when we are doing nothing . My goal is to offer bulletproof scientific excuses for laziness. But I also present possible neuroscientific insights into the relationship between idleness and creativity. Finally, I hope to hammer the first nails into a coffin for the insufferable time management industry.

On Randomness or noise:
Allowing the brain to rest opens the system to exploiting these mechanisms of nonlinearity and randomness, and amplifies the brain’s natural tendency to combine percepts and memories into new concepts. Anecdotal evidence from writers and artists, as well as recent psychological studies, leads to the understanding that in order to really tap the creative potential of the brain, a complex nonlinear system, we should allow ourselves long, uninterrupted periods of idleness. At a minimum, it is possible that resting is as important for brain health as is directed mental activity, if not more important. 

Given the ubiquity of noise in the brain and the environment, it is not surprising that evolution has endowed biological systems with the ability to use noise to find the signal. In fact if our brains were without randomness , they would not be able to function.

On Memory Consolidation:
If you get a good night’s sleep, relax for a while, or even take a nap, the hippocampus more or less writes these new memories to your neocortex, which houses your long-term memories. This is called memory consolidation. It is especially important when you are learning new ideas or skills. So the best thing to do after learning new information is to take nap , or at least be idle.

On Precuneous:
In the back of your brain (posterior) sits the precuneous. The precuneous is a hidden brain structure because it is close to the division between your brain’s hemispheres and parts of it are deep in your brain.However, the precuneous is also one of the regions that show the highest resting metabolic rate of any region in the brain. This means that at rest the precuneous starts devouring glucose like a crazed hummingbird. So if you can decouple from your “lean” workplace and start doing nothing, this hub in your default mode network revs up and starts redlining. Why is that important? The precuneous seems to be involved in self-reflection. One of the best ways to get to know yourself is to find a quiet or comfortably noisy place, stare at the sky, space out for a while and see what the precuneous gets up to. Like the precuneous, the parietal cortex is also involved in representing you to yourself , sometimes called “metacognition.” The ability to think about this question and to have some kind of answer comes partly from our lateral parietal cortex. Life would be pretty meaningless if you lacked any awareness of yourself.

On Lifestyle of American Kids:
When children enter school, and increasingly even before they enter school, parents fill up their lives with a stream of activities: sports, early exposure music classes, Chinese immersion school, summer camps, volunteer soup kitchen duties, dressage lessons, theater coaching, mathletics, and science workshops. There seems to be a pervasive and deep-seated anxiety among a certain class of parents that their children might actually have time to hang around and be children. Parents are forced to work longer and longer hours, sometimes just to keep the same pay. To replace ourselves we force our children to endure an endless barrage of activities that serve as proxy parents. We do this in order to convince ourselves that we still participate in some meaningful way in our children’s lives. We can get reports from teachers or coaches on our child’s successes— all without actually ever seeing the child do the activity we signed them up for. After all, we have more important things to do, like work! It should come as no surprise that as “play dates” overtake simply hanging around with friends and actually playing outside, childhood anxiety and depression rates are soaring, in tandem with childhood obesity.

Through the constant external demands and activities in which they are forced to partake, plus countless hours spent using digital devices, children have less and less time to introspect, process social and emotional experiences, and self-reflect. What’s more, children may develop an uncomfortable relationship with their idle selves, like many adults. When this happens, becoming idle will initially induce a feeling very similar to what a smoker craving a cigarette experiences: restless desperation. The child will seek out external stimulation in digital devices, approval from teachers, or from other adults. In a recent paper called “Rest is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education,” psychologists Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna Christodoulu, and Vanessa Singh hypothesize that allowing children to engage in free-form daydreaming and other types of inattentive states is essential to the development of social skills.

On Brain the Self-Organizing:
The individual neurons in our brains do not in themselves know that they are part of your brain, or that they make up “you.” Your consciousness is very much like the army ant’s bivouac. One of the persistent philosophical illusions we’ve had for centuries is that there is some place in our brain where a little person named Homunculus controls the actions of our brains. Or that even without Homunculus, there is a specific part of the brain that is somehow the command and control center, dictating what the brain should do. What neuroscience has revealed is that there is no such control center in the brain. There are hubs in our brain networks whose activity is more influential than others; however, there is no one single hub that dictates action. Our brains are much more like an ant colony: billions of neurons collaborating to give rise to our selves without any external or internal agent. In other words you are an emergent self-organizing phenomenon.

On Stress:
And it turns out that parts of the brain’s default mode network are tightly coupled to regulating variable cardiac rhythms. The anterior cingulate cortex, among other regions, plays an important role in regulating the stress that gets transferred to our heart. Idleness lets the ACC and our nervous system find stable and variable dynamics. Stress reduces the variability in our heart rate: a low level of anxiety forces the heart to be in a state of preparedness, which it cannot maintain indefinitely.
Stochastic resonance describes any phenomenon where the presence of noise, either internally or externally, in a nonlinear system makes the system respond better than it would without noise. In nonlinear dynamical systems— like the brain— noise can make the system behave in a more orderly fashion. It can also boost weak internal or external signals so that our sensory organs and even our conscious awareness can detect them. Noise and stochastic resonance are essential to consciousness.

On Six Sigma:
However, rather than just using it as a way to standardize production, companies began to apply the Six Sigma approach to every single business process, treating human beings as a series of inputs and outputs instead of sentient creatures. The single most important goal of the Six Sigma is to reduce variation in organizational processes by using disease vectors to spread throughout the company. These vectors are improvement specialists, a structured method, and performance metrics. This is similar to what the underlying disease in epilepsy does to neurons. During a seizure, the variations in the neurons are reduced. Reducing variation in the brain is devastating. Applied to an entire company , the Six Sigma process is analogous to an organizational epileptic seizure. Naturally, if you are making vaccines, aspirin, car parts, airplane engines, MRI scanners, or any other mass-produced thing that could potentially kill people, you want to prevent defects. In these types of highly automated manufacturing processes, Six Sigma makes sense. In fact, it makes sense to use robots to do most manufacturing. For repetitive automated tasks where very little decision -making is required, robots outperform human beings, no question. Six Sigma wants to make human beings as efficient as possible— predictable, reliable, nearly fault free, and with minimal interference from outside thoughts. Since Jack Welch Six Sigma-ed GE, the approach has spread to many major companies in the industrial sector and beyond. Some of the corporations that are having Six Sigma seizures include Fiat, Honeywell, Dow Chemical, Cameron, Sony, Johnson & Johnson, Bank of America, and Whirlpool.

The only system we know of in the universe that can be innovative is the human brain. But the brain seems to need things like freedom, long periods of idleness, positive emotions, low stress, randomness, noise, and a group of friends with tea in the garden to be creative. The truth is that we can’t have it both ways. Until we figure out how to give robots a “creative mode,” humans are going to be the only source of innovation for the foreseeable future. But the vast majority of business processes do not actually require human thought. Just as many time management strategies admonish you to get things out of your brain and into a physical organizer, Six Sigma would like to minimize human variation within the organization.

Quote of the Day

Uncovering the mysteries of natural phenomena that were formerly someone else’s ‘noise’ is a recurring theme in science.

- Alfred Bedard Jr. and Thomas George

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Programming In Time For Dinner

“The best time-saving trick for programming is to think before you type,” says programmer and podcaster John Siracusa. “Young programmers usually want to dive right in and start coding. But being forced to stop and do something else, by your kids or other family obligations, gives your brain a chance to process things. Heading to bed and resuming work the next day is almost always a much more efficient use of time than trying to stay up until you’ve cracked the problem,” he says. “A tired brain writes bad code. This is true regardless of your family situation. Kids just serve as a handy reminder.”

This same type of thinking is independently echoed by programmer Greg Knauss.

“The biggest change I’ve made, or tried to make, is to simply have a single focus when I’m doing something. If I’m coding, I try to be just coding. If I’m home, I try to be just home,” says Knauss. “It’s conventional wisdom that multitasking simply doesn’t work, and I’ve definitely found that to be the case for me.”

- More Here

Stephen Hawking on AI

So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong. If a superior alien civilization sent us a text message saying, "We'll arrive in a few decades," would we just reply, "OK, call us when you get here -- we'll leave the lights on"? Probably not -- but this is more or less what is happening with AI. Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity, little serious research is devoted to these issues outside small non-profit institutes such as the Cambridge Center for Existential Risk, the Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Future of Life Institute. All of us -- not only scientists, industrialists and generals -- should ask ourselves what can we do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.

- Stephen Hawking

The Data Science Venn Diagram

Venn Diagram here

Quote of the Day

Now I have to tell you something, and I mean this in the best and most inoffensive way possible: I don’t believe in process. In fact, when I interview a potential employee and he or she says that ‘it’s all about the process,’ I see that as a bad sign … The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.

- Elon Musk

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Peter Thiel’s Startup Class - Essay

In a determinate world, there are lots of things that people can do. There are thus many things to invest in. You get a high investment rate. In an indeterminate world, the investment rate is much lower. It’s not clear where people should put their money, so they don’t invest. We have a very low rate of investment in U.S.   Corporations are the main places where investment happens. But instead of investing, companies today are generating huge cash flows—about $1 trillion annually at this point. They are hoarding cash because they have no idea what else to do with it. Almost by definition, you wouldn’t have free cash flows if you knew where or how to invest. The consumer side isn’t all that different. People have no idea. So we end up with a low investment rate, low savings rate, and take an optimistic view of a fundamentally indeterminate future.

The pessimistic quadrants are always kind of stable. This is especially true of the indeterminate pessimistic quadrant; if you think that things are going to pot and you believe you can’t control them, they probably will. You’ll be stuck going nowhere for a long time. Under determinate pessimism, you’ll be like China—stuck methodically copying things without any hope for a radically better future.

The big question is whether indeterminate optimism—which characterized the U.S. from 1982 to at least 2007—is or can be a stable quadrant at all. That the U.S. has a low savings rate and low investment rate is very odd indeed. If you have both low investment and low savings, one must wonder how the future is supposed to happen at all. That no one is thinking about the future is evinced by the low investment rate. So how can people be so optimistic (not saving any money) about a future that no one is working toward?

- Read the whole thing here, its brilliant.

The Trouble With Rice

“It’s almost either-or, day-and-night as to whether we see arsenic or cadmium in the rice,” said Dr. Guerinot, a molecular geneticist and professor of biology at Dartmouth College.

The levels of arsenic and cadmium at the study site are not high enough to provoke alarm, she emphasized. Still, it is dawning on scientists like her that rice, one of the most widely consumed foods in the world, is also one of nature’s great scavengers of metallic compounds.

Consumers have already become alarmed over reports of rice-borne arsenic in everything from cereal bars to baby food. Some food manufacturers have stepped up screening for arsenic in their products, and agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration now recommend that people eat a variety of grains to “minimize potential adverse health consequences from eating an excess of any one food.”

But it’s not just arsenic and cadmium, which are present in soil both as naturally occurring elements and as industrial byproducts. Recent studies have shown that rice is custom-built to pull a number of metals from the soil, among them mercury and even tungsten. The findings have led to a new push by scientists and growers to make the grain less susceptible to metal contamination.

The highest levels often occur in brown rice, because elements like arsenic accumulate in bran and husk, which are polished off in the processing of white rice. The Department of Agriculture estimates that on average arsenic levels are 10 times as high in rice bran as in polished rice.

Although these are mostly tiny amounts — in the part per billion range — chronic exposure to arsenic, even at very low levels, can affect health. The F.D.A. is now considering whether a safety level should be set for arsenic in rice.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

A genius is someone who discovers that the stone that falls and the moon that doesn’t fall represent one and the same phenomenon.

- Ernesto Sabato

Monday, April 21, 2014

What I've Been Reading

The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life by Charles Murray. Murray has written this book for early twenty year olds who are on the verge of stepping into the wild wild world but his wisdom timeless and apt for every age.

Come to grips with the difference between being nice and being good

Nice and good are different. Being nice involves immediate actions and immediate consequences— you give water to the thirsty and comfort to the afflicted right here, right now. Being good involves living in the world so that you contribute to the welfare of your fellow human beings. Sometimes the immediate and long-term consequences are consistent with being nice; sometimes they are in conflict. That’s where the importance of the cardinal virtues comes in.

The four cardinal virtues were originated by the Greeks. They subsequently got their label from the Latin cardo, meaning “hinge,” because they are pivotal: All the other virtues, and the living of a virtuous life, depend on them. If you took an introductory philosophy course in college, they were probably translated from the Greek as courage, justice, temperance, and prudence.

Lacking the cardinal virtues, you can act in those other virtuous ways haphazardly, and occasionally have the effect you wish, but you cannot consistently have the effect you wish, nor will you be able to bring yourself to behave in those other virtuous ways when the going gets tough. You will still mean well. You will still be nice. You won’t be good.

Whether you find inspiration in the Western or the Eastern tradition is a minor issue. What is unacceptable is to go through life thinking that being nice is enough. You must come to grips with the requirements for being good.

On Proper Usage of English Language:
Issues. You can have issues with your spouse about your political views, but not about your infidelities. In the latter case, you don’t have a position to defend. You can’t have issues with alcohol or bipolar disorder. They aren’t arguing back. Stop using issues as a euphemism for a problem.

On Writing:
Writing well won’t necessarily push you up the ladder, but writing badly can keep you from rising. It’s no use being a clear thinker if you cannot communicate those thoughts. More important: Unless you’re in the hard sciences, the process of writing is your most valuable single tool for developing better ideas. The process of writing is the dominant source of intellectual creativity.

On Summer Jobs:
What’s so great about waiting tables in Montana or helping children bait hooks in Minnesota? Partly, they’re the jobs that are available. Ordinary jobs are hard to get for just three months, because employers know you’re not going to stay. But jobs at summer resorts also have a specific advantage: They are service jobs. Many of you have been waited upon constantly until this point in your life and you will be waited upon constantly as a successful adult. It is essential that you know what it’s like to do the waiting upon. Once you have been a server in a restaurant, you will never again look at dining in a restaurant as you did before you were a server. If you have ever had to attend to customers in a busy store, you are less likely to be an obnoxious customer thereafter.  You’ve got to spend serious time coping with situations that stress you psychologically and with people from alien backgrounds who stretch your understanding of life. Better to exercise your elastic limit now, when the penalties for errors are low, instead of fifteen years from now, when lack of experience in coping with adversity could be catastrophic.

On Happiness:
In ordinary life, lasting and justified satisfactions arise from only a few sources. I argue that they come from just four: family, vocation (which includes passionately pursued avocations and causes), community, and faith. If that sounds too dogmatic, try to think of a source of lasting and justified satisfactions that doesn’t fit into one of those four domains. It’s hard. It is not necessary for you to tap all four of these domains to be happy. There are happy atheists and happy single people. But the more of the four you are engaged in, the better your odds are.

On Marriage:
Marry someone with similar tastes and preferences. Which tastes and preferences? The ones that will affect life almost every day. It’s okay if you like the ballet and your spouse doesn’t. Reasonable people can accommodate each other on such differences. But if you dislike each other’s friends, or don’t get each other’s sense of humor, or— especially— if you have different ethical impulses, break it off and find someone else. Personal habits that you find objectionable in each other might be deal-breakers. Jacques Barzun identified the top three as punctuality, orderliness, and thriftiness. It doesn’t make any difference which point of the spectrum you’re on, he observed observed—“ Some couples are very happy living always in debt, always being late, and finding leftover pizza under a sofa cushion.” You just have to be at the same point on the spectrum. Intractable differences on any one of the three will, over time, become a fingernail dragged across the blackboard of a marriage.

Quote of the Day

Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.

- C.S. Lewis

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Oldest Living Things in the World

The durable mystery of longevity makes the species in this book all the more precious, and all the more worthy of being preserved. Looking at an organism that has endured for thousands of years is an awesome experience, because it makes us feel like mere gastrotrichs. But it is an even more awesome experience to recognize the bond we share with a 13,000-year-old Palmer’s oak tree, and to wonder how we evolved such different lifetimes on this Earth.

- The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman, Carl Zimmer and Hans Ulrich Obrist

The Critical Challenge of Educating the Public About Genetics

Abstract (full paper here):

The translation of genomics into medicine would benefit from a public that has a strong foundation in core genetics principles and that is able to access, identify, and use reliable information. Unfortunately, public under- standing of genetics is generally poor, a condition that can be traced to deficiencies in formal science education, weaknesses in representations of genetics in the media and on the Internet, and the limited knowledge and involve- ment of health care providers in patient education. Not- withstanding these challenges, the Internet, media, and health professionals likely will remain major sources of public education. Whether those sources contribute positively or negatively will depend, in part, on the public’s ability to discriminate high-quality from low-quality information and on health providers’ understanding of genetics and their willingness to engage in the genetics education of their patients.


The improvement of public genetic literacy is an educational challenge that necessarily must address several levels of education and communication. Modernizing genetics education in public K-12 schools is an essential goal, but one challenged by a long time horizon, the complications (in the US) of local control over curriculum, and the baleful impact of uneven teacher quality. These significant barriers emphasize the importance of alternatives to formal K-12 education that may be more effective at promoting the integration of genomics into health care, especially in the near term. The media represent one such alternative, but present their own challenges, including representations of genetics such as genetic optimism and oversimplification of complex topics, which are due to a variety of issues stem- ming from both journalistic practices and failures in science communication. In communicating with the media, geneticists and their institutions must strive to clearly and accurately communicate complex information and resist the temptation to promise too much of genetics. Providing journalists with the names of third-party experts and encouraging media training for lead authors may reduce the inaccuracies conveyed to journalists and improve the     balance and context of media coverage of genetics. The Internet is an almost ubiquitous tool for informing the public, and many sites provide reliable information about basic genetics, genetic tests, and applications of genomics to medicine. Such sites, however, are widely dispersed, and much of the public lacks the skill to discriminate effectively between sound and unsound information.

Information about genetics has never been more accessible, but much of it is oversimplified, overhyped, and misunderstood. Health care providers can help patients make sense of this confusion by presenting genetic information in a clinical context that is relevant to their patients. That clinical skill, however, will require that providers are willing to engage their patients in an early and open dialogue about genetics and that the providers themselves are confident in their own understanding of the field. Success does not require that providers be encyclopedic in their knowledge. Rather, by serving as arbiters of information quality, translators of complexity, and advocates for their patients, health care providers can assist their patients in educating themselves.

Quote of the Day

But if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.

- Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Wisdom Of The Week

This week, I started reading Friedrich Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man which is series of 27 letters:

The whole burden of the argument in these Letters is, in a single sentence, that Man must pass through the aesthetic condition, from the merely physical, in order to reach the rational or moral. The aesthetic condition itself has no significance—all it does is to restore Man to himself, so that he can make of himself what he wills. He is a cipher; but he is capable of becoming anything (Schiller here treats art much as Kant did religion). Sensuous Man, then, must become aesthetic Man before he can be moral Man.

I am trying to read slowly and digest this brilliant book but Schiller has already own me over:

I hope to convince you that this subject is far less alien to the need of the age than to its taste, that we must indeed, if we are to solve that political problem in practice, follow the path of aesthetics, since it is through Beauty that we arrive at Freedom.


Her was more plausible, "realistic" and less flamboyant. Transcendence is a grand unified theory based on AI, quantum mechanics, genetics, neuroscience and what not and I lost interest half way through the movie.

Btw Transcendence get's the top spot in 10 Futurist Phrases And Terms That Are Complete Bullshit.

Quote of the Day

  • Nobody deserves your tears, but whoever deserves them will not make you cry.
  • He who awaits much can expect little.
  • There is always something left to love.
  • Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.
  • It’s enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment.
  • A true friend is the one who holds your hand and touches your heart.
  • All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.
  • Nothing in this world was more difficult than love.
  • Wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.
  • A lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth
  • Crazy people are not crazy if one accepts their reasoning.
  • Age isn’t how old you are but how old you feel.
  • No matter what, nobody can take away the dances you’ve already had.
  • Be calm. God awaits you at the door.
  • Just because someone does not love you as you want, it does not mean that you do not love with all his being.
  • Humanity, like armies in the field, advances at the speed of the slowest.
  • The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.
  • A person doesn’t die when he should but when he can.
  • The heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good.
  • No medicine cures what happiness cannot.

    - Gabriel García Márquez, who passed away two days ago at the age of 87

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Psychopath Whisperer

One of the biggest differences is that psychopaths are way more common than people believe. About one in 150 people will meet the stringent clinical criteria for the disorder. That means hundreds of thousands of them are out and about in the population. The majority of them don’t commit violent crimes, but they lead this sort of disorganized, nomadic life, and they tend to eventually end up in some sort of trouble. Hollywood hasn’t done a good job of portraying the average psychopath. For the most part, they’ve taken the extreme view, with the Hannibal Lecters and more sensationalized people like that. It’s actually far more common and banal.

With psychopathy the main features are lack of empathy, guilt, and remorse — and impulsivity. Psychosis is a fragmentation of the mind where you have hallucinations and delusions. It’s a very different disorder. You almost never find someone who has psychotic delusions and even moderate levels of psychopathic traits

- Interview with Kent Kiehl, author of The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience  

In two decades Kent had only come across a handful of people who scored 40 out of 40 on the psychopathy checklist (30 is commonly used as the psychopath cutoff. Regular folks tend to score around 4 or 5).

Quote of the Day

Thursday, April 17, 2014

How Philosophy Makes Progress

Gregarious creatures that we are, our framework of making ourselves coherent to ourselves commits us to making ourselves coherent to others. Having reasons means being prepared to share them—though not necessarily with everyone. The progress in our moral reasoning has worked to widen both the kinds of reasons we offer and the group to whom we offer them. There can’t be a widening of the reasons we give in justifying our actions without a corresponding widening of the audience to which we’re prepared to give our reasons. Plato gave arguments for why Greeks, under the pressures of war, couldn’t treat other Greeks in abominable ways, pillaging and razing their cities and taking the vanquished as slaves. But his reasons didn’t, in principle, generalize to non-Greeks, which is tantamount to denying that non-Greeks were owed any reasons. Every increase in our moral coherence—recognizing the rights of the enslaved, the colonialized, the impoverished, the imprisoned, women, children, LGBTs, the handicapped ...—is simultaneously an expansion of those to whom we are prepared to offer reasons accounting for our behavior. The reasons by which we make our behavior coherent to ourselves changes together with our view of who has reasons coming to them.

And this is progress, progress in increasing our coherence, which is philosophy’s special domain. In the case of manumission, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, criminals’ rights, animal rights, the abolition of cruel and unusual punishment, the conduct of war—in fact, almost every progressive movement one can name—it was reasoned argument that first laid out the incoherence, demonstrating that the same logic underlying reasons to which we were already committed applied in a wider context. The project of rendering ourselves less inconsistent, initiated by the ancient Greeks, has left those ancient Greeks, even the best and brightest of them, far behind, just as our science has left their scientists far behind.

This kind of progress, unlike scientific progress, tends to erase its own tracks as it is integrated into our manifest image and so becomes subsumed in the framework by which we conceive of ourselves. We no longer see the argumentative work it took for this advance in morality to be achieved. Its invisibility takes the measure of the achievement.

- More Here

What Gets in the Way of Listening

  • Ignore your inner critic - Shift your focus from “getting a good grade” to the presentation’s greater purpose. What excites you about the topic or audience?
  • Expand how you see your role - Consider if you’ve boxed yourself in by role definition.  Do you believe your primary job is to provide direction only?
  • Put aside your fear and anticipation - Notice if your listening shuts down when you’re emotionally uncomfortable.  Are you aware of your triggers?
  • Be open to having your mind changed - Are you trying too hard to convey confidence and missing others’ perspectives in the process?
While tactically there are many ways to strengthen your listening skills, you must focus on the deeper, internal issues at stake to really improve. Listening is a skill that enables you to align people, decisions, and agendas. You cannot have leadership presence without hearing what others have to say.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing ; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing.

- Michel de Montaigne

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What I've Been Reading

The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life by Steve Leveen. If you are not into books or an avid reader or want to be one then read this book.

Books without knowledge of life are useless, for what books teach but art of living.

- Samuel Johnson

On Developing your List of Candidates:
It is more helpful to consider the books you place on your list as candidates for your attention rather than obligations. Creating a list of candidates engenders an open-ended, exploratory process rather than a closed, prescriptive solution.

What are your categories? Fill them with books you'd like to read and start gaining the satisfaction of knowing you have a pantry full of good food for mind and spirit.

As your list and library of candidates grow, they will give you food for thought each time you turn to them. And as you begin to read these books, they will, preface, lead to other books and other interests. Interests are like candles, each one capable of lighting more without diminishing itself.

Mortimer Adler on writing our thoughts on the pages of books:
Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake - not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written... Third, writing your reaction down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author... Marking a book is literally an expression of your difference or your agreements with author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. 

What counts in the long run is not what you read; it is what you shift through your mind; it is the ideas and impressions that are aroused in you by your reading.

- Eleanor Roosevelt

On Audio Books:
While commute times stretch out across America, an increasing number of people are listening to books and loving it. Those who study traffic congestion refer to these lengthening commutes as lost time. From an audiobook perspective it's not lost time, it's found time.

On Book Groups:
Reading confirms your aliveness. It's very validating. That's what book groups ultimately are; you get validated in the human condition - the condition and puzzles, the good stuff and bad stuff, the aspirations and hopes and despairs. You're not alone out there. 

The great secret of reading consist in this, that it does not matter so much what we read, or how we read it, as what we think and how we think it.

- Charles F. Richardson, Book-Lover

Quote of the Day

Educate your children to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society.

- Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge

Sam Harris interviews Dan Harris, the author of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story:

Sam: Can you say something about what it was like to go on retreat for the first time? What sort of resistance did you have? And what was it like to punch through it?
Dan: I blame the entire experience on you. It was largely your idea, and you got me into the retreat—which, to my surprise, was hard to get into. I had no idea that so many people wanted to sign up for ten days of no talking, vegetarian food, and 12 hours a day of meditation, which sounded like a perfect description of one of the inner circles of Dante’s Inferno to me.
As you can gather from the previous sentences, I did not look forward to the experience at all. However, I knew as a budding meditator that this was the next step to take. When we met backstage at the debate you and Michael Shermer did with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston, which I moderated for Nightline, I realized for the first time that you were a meditator. You recommended that I go on this retreat, and it was almost as if I’d received a dare from a cool kid I admired. I felt like I really needed to do this. It was as horrible as I’d thought it would be for a couple of days. On day four or five I thought I might quit, but then I had a breakthrough.

Sam: Describe that breakthrough. What shifted?
Dan: As I say in the book, it felt as if I had been dragged by my head by a motorboat for a few days, and then, all of the sudden, I got up on water skis. When you’re hauled kicking and screaming into the present moment, you arrive at an experience of the mind that is, at least for me, totally new. I could see very clearly the ferocious rapidity of the mind—how fast we’re hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling, wanting—and that this is our life. We are on the receiving end of this fire hose of mental noise. That glimpse ushered in the happiest 36 hours of my life. But, as the Buddha liked to point out, nothing lasts—and that did not last.

Calculus vs Probabilitistic and Statistical Thinking

There are several different frameworks one could use to get a handle on the indeterminate vs. determinate question. The math version is calculus vs. statistics. In a determinate world, calculus dominates. You can calculate specific things precisely and deterministically. When you send a rocket to the moon, you have to calculate precisely where it is at all times. It’s not like some iterative startup where you launch the rocket and figure things out step by step. Do you make it to the moon? To Jupiter? Do you just get lost in space? There were lots of companies in the ’90s that had launch parties but no landing parties.

But the indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world. Bell curves and random walks define what the future is going to look like. The standard pedagogical argument is that high schools should get rid of calculus and replace it with statistics, which is really important and actually useful. There has been a powerful shift toward the idea that statistical ways of thinking are going to drive the future.

With calculus, you can calculate things far into the future. You can even calculate planetary locations years or decades from now. But there are no specifics in probability and statistics—only distributions. In these domains, all you can know about the future is that you can’t know it. You cannot dominate the future; antitheories dominate instead. The Larry Summers line about the economy was something like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but anyone who says he knows what will happen doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Today, all prophets are false prophets. That can only be true if people take a statistical view of the future.

- Peter Thiel (via FS)

Quote of the Day

It seems, in fact, that the more advanced a society is, the greater will be its interest in ruined things, for it will see in them a redemptively sobering reminder of the fragility of its own achievements. Ruins pose a direct challenge to our concern with power and rank, with bustle and fame. They puncture the inflated folly of our exhaustive and frenetic pursuit of wealth.

- Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: t/c

Monday, April 14, 2014

What I've Been Reading

Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind by Biz Stone. It's been a while since I laughed so much reading a book. It feels good when a humble person like Biz succeeds. He is now working on a new venture called "Jelly" - good luck Biz !!

I’m not a genius, but I’ve always had faith in myself and, more important, in humanity. The greatest skill I possessed and developed over the years was the ability to listen to people: the nerds of Google, the disgruntled users of Twitter, my respected colleagues, and, always, my lovely wife. What that taught me, in the course of helping to found and lead Twitter for over five years, and during my time at startups before then, was that the technology that appears to change our lives is, at its core, not a miracle of invention or engineering. No matter how many machines we added to the network or how sophisticated the algorithms got, what I worked on and witnessed at Twitter was and continues to be a triumph not of technology but of humanity.

On Rags to Riches:
To me, all my friends were rich. It seemed that they assumed I came from a wealthy family, too, but at various times, we were on welfare. I remember the gigantic slabs of government-issued cheese. I was on a school lunch program for low-income families, which was good because it meant I didn’t need lunch money, but it was bad because of the way it worked.

At Google, when word got around that I was sleeping on the floor, some colleagues passed around a coffee can and raised eight hundred dollars for me to buy a bed. It was an amazingly kind gesture, and I was touched and grateful. However, I had no choice but to misallocate the funds and put them all toward my obscene car payments, which were several months overdue. As for the rest of our furniture, I brought home two garish, multicolor Google beanbag chairs. We sat in those beanbags and slept on the carpet for over a year— until I finally got some dough from Google.

At the time, we ourselves were caring for two rescue dogs, two rescue cats, and a rescue tortoise. At various times we also had foster bunnies, crows, and rodents of varying sizes and shapes. So we took all the money we’d saved and used it as a down payment. We bought a little eight-hundred-square-foot house that had been built as the maid’s quarters to a bigger house. Half that square footage was the garage.

On Creativity:
Creativity is a renewable resource. Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out. Experience and curiosity drive us to make unexpected, offbeat connections. It is these nonlinear steps that often lead to the greatest work.

Starting over is one of the hardest leaps to make in life. Security, stability, safety— it’s scary, if not downright irresponsible, to leave these behind. I was at Google in 2003 and I might still be there now. But I had faith in my future self. (After all, my once-future self had finally managed to pay off the Toyota Matrix.) I could help build something new.

Embrace your constraints, whether they are creative, physical, economic, or self-imposed. They are provocative. They are challenging. They wake you up. They make you more creative. They make you better.

What I’m suggesting is that you embrace the upside of fantastic, epic, earth-shattering, life-changing failure. It’s totally worth it if you succeed. And if you fail, you’ve got a great story to tell— and some experience that gives you a serious edge the next time you go for it. This is a good lesson for startups in general, and for otherwise going for what you truly want. It’s like there’s a natural force of equality at play. If you really want to succeed big, you have to be willing to risk crazy failure.

On Officially Becoming Rich:
Nothing really changed, except that I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I’d grown up poor, and I’d spent almost my entire adult life in debt. Livy’s parents were freelance artists living from hand to mouth. Neither of us had been on the streets, but we were never financially secure. We had grown somewhat comfortable being uncomfortable. It seemed like only yesterday that Livy and I were pouring coins from a coffee can into a Coinstar machine and Livy was clapping because we hit one hundred dollars. The best thing I can say about having enough money after being in debt is that money is an immune system. When you’re in debt— and you have to pick which bills to pay and which to default on every month, for years— you’re always at the edge. Every little expense is bone on bone. Every choice can easily become an argument between you and your spouse.

If you have enough money— you don’t have to be rich, but if you have enough to meet your needs, pay your bills, and put a little in savings— the constant anxiety of just getting by disappears. The persistent worry you were carrying fades. The biggest effect money has had on me is that now, every day, I’m grateful for the relief from that anxiety.

The other thing I’ll say about money is that having a lot of it amplifies who you are. I have found this to be almost universally true. If you’re a nice person, and then you get money, you become a wonderful philanthropist. But if you’re an asshole, with lots of money you can afford to be more of an asshole: “Why isn’t my soda at sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit?” You choose who you are no matter what, but I have to say that the anxiety of making ends meet gives you a bit of a pass. When you’re rich, you have no excuse.

On Twitter:
We didn’t set out to build a tool to help people make decisions about earthquakes. This would be our next lesson, the biggest that Twitter had to offer: even the simplest tools can empower people to do great things.

Twitter taught me that our behavior, as humans, is infinitely expandable. The technology of Twitter didn’t teach humans to flock. It exposed our latent ability to do so. Mind-blowing!

Flocking is a triumph of humanity. It can make things happen. Imagine if humanity could cooperate like an emergent life form— we could get things done in a single year that would otherwise take one hundred years to do. Imagine if all the world’s astrophysicists put their egos aside and collaborated on a Mars mission? Or all the environmental scientists worked as one on global warming? Or the world’s best oncologists took on cancer together, one type at a time? Only 114,000 people in the world have thirty million dollars or more in assets. What if they were in a Google group and decided to invest in one thing to change the course of history? Then there’s all of us, and together we are more powerful than any one thing. Can you imagine what we could get done?

On Twitter "HR":
We should always seek knowledge, even in the face of fear. And so I gave the Twitter employees a set of assumptions that I hoped would replace their fears, reminding them to keep their minds open, pursue knowledge, and see the bigger picture. When new employees joined Twitter, Evan and I met with them. We took the time to tell the story of how the company got started, and we shared and discussed the following six assumptions. Assumptions for Twitter Employees:
  • We don’t always know what’s going to happen. 
  • There are more smart people out there than in here. 
  • We will win if we do the right thing for our users. 
  • The only deal worth doing is a win-win deal. 
  • Our coworkers are smart and they have good intentions. 
  • We can build a business, change the world, and have fun.

Quote of the Day

It’s normally agreed that the question ‘How are you?’ doesn’t put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, ‘A bit early to say.’ (If it’s the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, ‘I seem to have cancer today.’) Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of ‘life’ when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose. Sorry, but you did ask… It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.

- Christopher Hitchens, Mortality (He would have been 65 yesterday)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Is There a Flynn Effect for Dogs?

“People want to get inside the heads of their dogs, and after 40,000 years living alongside them, science is finally helping us do it,” Mr. Hare said over the phone. He was on his way to Congo to do fieldwork with Bonobo monkeys, his other species of focus.

It’s true that dogs everywhere are doing things that would have been unimaginable in the Alpo era. Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center trained a team of shepherds and retrievers to sniff out lab samples containing ovarian cancer. Scent hounds are also being used to forecast epileptic seizures and potentially life-threatening infections. A black Labrador from the St. Sugar Cancer-Sniffing Dog Training Center in Chiba, Japan, was accurate 98 percent of the time in picking up early-stage signs of colon cancer. As Mr. Hare, from Duke, said, “I will take a dog smelling my breath over a colonoscopy any day of the week, even if it’s just an experiment.”

- via Tyler

What I've Been Reading

On Becoming an Individual or HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD by one of my favorite bloggers, David Cain. It's a small free e-book, loaded with great insights in a colloquial format.

Here's one self-improvement truism that's worth remembering:

People usually overestimate what they can do in a year, but greatly underestimate what they can do in five years.

What's most important to understand is that the time will pass anyway, and you will either have something outstanding to show for it, or life can be pretty much the same as it is today.

A year passes quickly, and truly big plans tend to take 3-5 years to fully take form. But you can still make a night-and-day difference in your quality of life over only a year if you begin building something now.

4 Ways Tiny Microbes Changed Life on Earth Forever

  • How the Earth's Atmosphere Got Oxygen - Among the complications of traveling 3 billion years back in time is the fact that you would immediately suffocate. There wasn't much oxygen, if any, in Earth's atmosphere back then. But about 2.7 or 2.8 billion years ago, cyanobacteria—also known as blue-green algae—began to proliferate for reasons still unclear. Like their descendants today, these cyanobacteria could turn sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen. You might recognize this process as photosynthesis.
  • The Worst Mass Extinction in the History of the Earth - Methanosarcina simply acquired two genes from an unrelated bacterium about 250 million years ago. These genes let the microbes feed on a previously untapped food source: a carbon compound called acetate abundant in ocean sediments. Feed and grow they did, all the while releasing vast amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas, that warmed the atmosphere and acidified the oceans. Volcanoes could have still played in a role in spewing out nickel, which is necessary for the chemical reaction that lets microbes make methane gas. The abundance of nickel would have eased along the microbe's runaway growth—and decimation of the rest life on Earth.
  • Nitrogen-Fixing Microbes and Our Food - In 1910, the German chemist Fritz Haber invented a process to mimic what microbes had been already doing for millions of years: fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia. While all life on Earth requires nitrogen, the inert nitrogen gas that makes up 78 percent of the planet's atmosphere is useless to all but some nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The Haber process changed that. With a new source of nitrogen fertilizer, agriculture exploded and the human population more than quadrupled in that time. It's estimated that half of the nitrogen in all our bodies originated with the Haber process.
  • What Microbes Mean For Climate Change - Microbes can both absorb or release carbon, depending on their diets, so the direction of their influence is not so clear. But, in aggregate, they are huge players in the carbon cycle. Just the microbes that decompose dead plants in the soil, for example, release 55 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is eight times what humans contribute through fossil fuels and deforestation. And climate change is changing how these microbes function. In the cold Siberian tundra, for instance, there is normally not much microbial activity. In recent years, however, the tundra is releasing more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, which scientists believe is due to rising temperatures allowing more microbes to feed in the tundra and release carbon dioxide. The same could be happening in the oceans.
- More Here