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A Gravitational Wave Comes Ashore

ligo-gravitational-waves-detection

On February 11, 2016, a historic day for astronomers the world over, scientists announced a monumental discovery, which was made on September 14, 2015! Thank you LIGO, the era of gravitational wave (G-Wave) astronomy has begun.

One hundred years after a prediction from Einstein’s theory of general relativity scientists have their first direct evidence of gravitational waves. These waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime itself rather than the movement of fields and particles, such as from electromagnetic radiation. These ripples show up when gravitationally immense bodies warp the structure of space in which they sit, such as through collisions or acceleration.

ligo-hanford-aerial

As you might imagine for such disturbances to be observed here on Earth over distances in the tens to hundreds of millions, of light-years requires not only vastly powerful forces at one end but immensely sensitive instruments at the other. In fact the detector credited with discovery in this case is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. It is so sensitive it can detect a change in length of its measurement apparatus — infra-red laser beams — 10,000 times smaller than the width of a proton. LIGO is operated by Caltech and MIT and supported through the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Prof Kip Thorne, one of the founders of LIGO, said that until now, astronomers had looked at the universe as if on a calm sea. This is now changed. He adds:

“The colliding black holes that produced these gravitational waves created a violent storm in the fabric of space and time, a storm in which time speeded up and slowed down, and speeded up again, a storm in which the shape of space was bent in this way and that way.”

And, as Prof Stephen Hawking remarked:

“Gravitational waves provide a completely new way of looking at the universe. The ability to detect them has the potential to revolutionise astronomy. This discovery is the first detection of a black hole binary system and the first observation of black holes merging.”

Congratulations to the many hundreds of engineers, technicians, researchers and theoreticians who have collaborated on this ground-breaking experiment. Particular congratulations go to LIGO’s three principal instigators: Rainier Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ronald Drever.

This discovery paves the way for deeper understanding of our cosmos and lays the foundation for a new and rich form of astronomy through gravitational observations.

Galileo’s first telescopes opened our eyes to the visual splendor of our solar system and its immediate neighborhood. More recently, radio-wave, x-ray and gamma-ray astronomy have allowed us to discover wonders further afield: star-forming nebulae, neutron stars, black holes, active galactic nuclei, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). Now, through LIGO and its increasingly sensitive descendants we are likely to make even more breathtaking discoveries, some of which, courtesy of gravitational waves, may let us peer at the very origin of the universe itself — the Big Bang.

How brilliant is that!

Image 1: The historic detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is shown in this plot during a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 11, 2016.Courtesy: National Science Foundation.

Image 2: LIGO Laboratory operates two detector sites 1,800 miles apart: one near Hanford in eastern Washington, and another near Livingston, Louisiana. This photo shows the Hanford detector. Courtesy of LIGO Caltech.

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Pass the Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide

NAD-moleculeFor those of us seeking to live another 100 years or more the news and/or hype over the last decade belonged to resveratrol. The molecule is believed to improve functioning of specific biochemical pathways in the cell, which may improve cell repair and hinder the aging process. Resveratrol is found — in trace amounts — in grape skin (and hence wine), blueberries and raspberries. While proof remains scarce, this has not stopped the public from consuming large quantities of wine and berries.

Ironically, one would need to ingest such large amounts of resveratrol to replicate the benefits found in mice studies, that the wine alone would probably cause irreversible liver damage before any health benefits appeared. Oh well.

So, on to the next big thing, since aging cannot wait. It’s called NAD or Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide. NAD performs several critical roles in the cell, one of which is energy metabolism. As we age our cells show diminishing levels of NAD and this is, possibly, linked to mitochondrial deterioration. Mitochondria are the cells’ energy factories, so keeping our mitochondria humming along is critical. Thus, hordes of researchers are now experimenting with NAD and related substances to see if they hold promise in postponing cellular demise.

From Scientific American:

Whenever I see my 10-year-old daughter brimming over with so much energy that she jumps up in the middle of supper to run around the table, I think to myself, “those young mitochondria.”

Mitochondria are our cells’ energy dynamos. Descended from bacteria that colonized other cells about 2 billion years, they get flaky as we age. A prominent theory of aging holds that decaying of mitochondria is a key driver of aging. While it’s not clear why our mitochondria fade as we age, evidence suggests that it leads to everything from heart failure to neurodegeneration, as well as the complete absence of zipping around the supper table.

Recent research suggests it may be possible to reverse mitochondrial decay with dietary supplements that increase cellular levels of a molecule called NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide). But caution is due: While there’s promising test-tube data and animal research regarding NAD boosters, no human clinical results on them have been published.

NAD is a linchpin of energy metabolism, among other roles, and its diminishing level with age has been implicated in mitochondrial deterioration. Supplements containing nicotinamide riboside, or NR, a precursor to NAD that’s found in trace amounts in milk, might be able to boost NAD levels. In support of that idea, half a dozen Nobel laureates and other prominent scientists are working with two small companies offering NR supplements.

The NAD story took off toward the end of 2013 with a high-profile paper by Harvard’s David Sinclair and colleagues. Sinclair, recall, achieved fame in the mid-2000s for research on yeast and mice that suggested the red wine ingredient resveratrol mimics anti-aging effects of calorie restriction. This time his lab made headlines by reporting that the mitochondria in muscles of elderly mice were restored to a youthful state after just a week of injections with NMN (nicotinamide mononucleotide), a molecule that naturally occurs in cells and, like NR, boosts levels of NAD.

It should be noted, however, that muscle strength was not improved in the NMN-treated micethe researchers speculated that one week of treatment wasn’t enough to do that despite signs that their age-related mitochondrial deterioration was reversed.

NMN isn’t available as a consumer product. But Sinclair’s report sparked excitement about NR, which was already on the market as a supplement called Niagen. Niagen’s maker, ChromaDex, a publicly traded Irvine, Calif., company, sells it to various retailers, which market it under their own brand names. In the wake of Sinclair’s paper, Niagen was hailed in the media as a potential blockbuster.

In early February, Elysium Health, a startup cofounded by Sinclair’s former mentor, MIT biologist Lenny Guarente, jumped into the NAD game by unveiling another supplement with NR. Dubbed Basis, it’s only offered online by the company. Elysium is taking no chances when it comes to scientific credibility. Its website lists a dream team of advising scientists, including five Nobel laureates and other big names such as the Mayo Clinic’s Jim Kirkland, a leader in geroscience, and biotech pioneer Lee Hood. I can’t remember a startup with more stars in its firmament.

A few days later, ChromaDex reasserted its first-comer status in the NAD game by announcing that it had conducted a clinical trial demonstrating that a single dose of NR resulted in statistically significant increases in NAD in humansthe first evidence that supplements could really boost NAD levels in people. Details of the study won’t be out until it’s reported in a peer-reviewed journal, the company said. (ChromaDex also brandishes Nobel credentials: Roger Kornberg, a Stanford professor who won the Chemistry prize in 2006, chairs its scientific advisory board. Hes the son of Nobel laureate Arthur Kornberg, who, ChromaDex proudly notes, was among the first scientists to study NR some 60 years ago.)

The NAD findings tie into the ongoing story about enzymes called sirtuins, which Guarente, Sinclair and other researchers have implicated as key players in conferring the longevity and health benefits of calorie restriction. Resveratrol, the wine ingredient, is thought to rev up one of the sirtuins, SIRT1, which appears to help protect mice on high doses of resveratrol from the ill effects of high-fat diets. A slew of other health benefits have been attributed to SIRT1 activation in hundreds of studies, including several small human trials.

Here’s the NAD connection: In 2000, Guarente’s lab reported that NAD fuels the activity of sirtuins, including SIRT1the more NAD there is in cells, the more SIRT1 does beneficial things. One of those things is to induce formation of new mitochondria. NAD can also activate another sirtuin, SIRT3, which is thought to keep mitochondria running smoothly.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Structure of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, oxidized (NAD+). Courtesy of Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Streaming is So 2015

Led Zeppelin-IV

Fellow music enthusiasts and technology early adopters ditch the streaming sounds right now. And, if you still have an iPod, or worse an MP3 or CD player, trash it; trash them all.

The future of music is coming, and it’s beamed and implanted directly into your grey matter. I’m not sure if I like the idea of Taylor Swift inside my head — I’m more of a Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin person — nor the idea of not having a filter for certain genres (i.e., country music). However, some might like the notion of a digital-DJ brain implant that lays down tracks based on your mood from monitoring your neurochemical mix. It’s only a matter of time.

Thanks, but I’ll stick to vinyl, crackles and all.

From WSJ:

The year is 2040, and as you wait for a drone to deliver your pizza, you decide to throw on some tunes. Once a commodity bought and sold in stores, music is now an omnipresent utility invoked via spoken- word commands. In response to a simple “play,” an algorithmic DJ opens a blended set of songs, incorporating information about your location, your recent activities and your historical preferences—complemented by biofeedback from your implanted SmartChip. A calming set of lo-fi indie hits streams forth, while the algorithm adjusts the beats per minute and acoustic profile to the rain outside and the fact that you haven’t eaten for six hours.

The rise of such dynamically generated music is the story of the age. The album, that relic of the 20th century, is long dead. Even the concept of a “song” is starting to blur. Instead there are hooks, choruses, catchphrases and beats—a palette of musical elements that are mixed and matched on the fly by the computer, with occasional human assistance. Your life is scored like a movie, with swelling crescendos for the good parts, plaintive, atonal plunks for the bad, and fuzz-pedal guitar for the erotic. The DJ’s ability to read your emotional state approaches clairvoyance. But the developers discourage the name “artificial intelligence” to describe such technology. They prefer the term “mood-affiliated procedural remixing.”

Right now, the mood is hunger. You’ve put on weight lately, as your refrigerator keeps reminding you. With its assistance—and the collaboration of your DJ—you’ve come up with a comprehensive plan for diet and exercise, along with the attendant soundtrack. Already, you’ve lost six pounds. Although you sometimes worry that the machines are running your life, it’s not exactly a dystopian experience—the other day, after a fast- paced dubstep remix spurred you to a personal best on your daily run through the park, you burst into tears of joy.

Cultural production was long thought to be an impregnable stronghold of human intelligence, the one thing the machines could never do better than humans. But a few maverick researchers persisted, and—aided by startling, asymptotic advances in other areas of machine learning—suddenly, one day, they could. To be a musician now is to be an arranger. To be a songwriter is to code. Atlanta, the birthplace of “trap” music, is now a locus of brogrammer culture. Nashville is a leading technology incubator. The Capitol Records tower was converted to condos after the label uploaded its executive suite to the cloud.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Led Zeppelin IV album cover. Courtesy of the author.

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Who Needs a Self-Driving Car?

Self-driving vehicles have been very much in the news over the last couple of years. Google’s autonomous car project is perhaps the most notable recent example — its latest road-worthy prototype is the culmination of a project out of Stanford, which garnered an innovation prize from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) back in 2005. And, numerous companies are in various stages of experimenting, planning, prototyping and developing, including GM, Apple, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, BMW, Tesla, to name but a few.

Ehang-184-AAVThat said, even though it may still be a few years yet before we see traffic jams of driverless cars clogging the Interstate Highway system, some forward-thinkers are not resting on their laurels.  EHang, a Chinese drone manufacturer is leapfrogging the car entirely and pursuing an autonomous drone — actually an autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) known as the Ehang 184 — capable of flying one passenger. Cooler still, the only onboard control is a Google-map interface that allows the passenger to select a destination. The AAV and ground-based command centers take care of the rest.

I have to wonder if EHang’s command centers will be able to use the drone to shoot missiles at militants as well as delivering a passenger, or better still, targeting missiles at rogue drivers.

Wired has more about this fascinating new toy — probably aimed at Russian oligarchs and Silicon Valley billionaires.

Image: Ehang 184 — Autonomous Aerial Vehicle. Courtesy of EHang.

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iScoliosis

Google-search-neck-xray

Industrial and occupational illnesses have followed humans since the advent of industry. Obvious ones include: lung diseases from mining and a variety of skin diseases from exposure to agricultural and factory chemicals.

The late 20th century saw us succumb to carpal tunnel and other repetitive stress injuries from laboring over our desks and computers. Now, in the 21st we are becoming hosts to the smartphone pathogen.

In addition to the spectrum of social and cultural disorders wrought by our constantly chattering mobile devices, we are at increased psychological and physical risk. But, let’s leave aside the two obvious ones: risk from vehicle injury due to texting while driving, and risk from injury due to texting while walking. More commonly, we are at increased risk of back and other chronic physical problems resulting from poor posture. This in turn leads to mood disorders, memory problems and depression. Some have termed this condition “text-neck”, “iHunch”, or “iPosture”; I’ll go with “iScoliosis™”.

From NYT:

THERE are plenty of reasons to put our cellphones down now and then, not least the fact that incessantly checking them takes us out of the present moment and disrupts family dinners around the globe. But here’s one you might not have considered: Smartphones are ruining our posture. And bad posture doesn’t just mean a stiff neck. It can hurt us in insidious psychological ways.

If you’re in a public place, look around: How many people are hunching over a phone? Technology is transforming how we hold ourselves, contorting our bodies into what the New Zealand physiotherapist Steve August calls the iHunch. I’ve also heard people call it text neck, and in my work I sometimes refer to it as iPosture.

The average head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds. When we bend our necks forward 60 degrees, as we do to use our phones, the effective stress on our neck increases to 60 pounds — the weight of about five gallons of paint. When Mr. August started treating patients more than 30 years ago, he says he saw plenty of “dowagers’ humps, where the upper back had frozen into a forward curve, in grandmothers and great-grandmothers.” Now he says he’s seeing the same stoop in teenagers.

When we’re sad, we slouch. We also slouch when we feel scared or powerless. Studies have shown that people with clinical depression adopt a posture that eerily resembles the iHunch. One, published in 2010 in the official journal of the Brazilian Psychiatric Association, found that depressed patients were more likely to stand with their necks bent forward, shoulders collapsed and arms drawn in toward the body.

Posture doesn’t just reflect our emotional states; it can also cause them. In a study published in Health Psychology earlier this year, Shwetha Nair and her colleagues assigned non-depressed participants to sit in an upright or slouched posture and then had them answer a mock job-interview question, a well-established experimental stress inducer, followed by a series of questionnaires. Compared with upright sitters, the slouchers reported significantly lower self-esteem and mood, and much greater fear. Posture affected even the contents of their interview answers: Linguistic analyses revealed that slouchers were much more negative in what they had to say. The researchers concluded, “Sitting upright may be a simple behavioral strategy to help build resilience to stress.”

Slouching can also affect our memory: In a study published last year in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy of people with clinical depression, participants were randomly assigned to sit in either a slouched or an upright position and then presented with a list of positive and negative words. When they were later asked to recall those words, the slouchers showed a negative recall bias (remembering the bad stuff more than the good stuff), while those who sat upright showed no such bias. And in a 2009 study of Japanese schoolchildren, those who were trained to sit with upright posture were more productive than their classmates in writing assignments.

Read the entire article here, preferably not via your smartphone.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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RIP: Maurice White

Maurice_White_1982

We’ve lost another great musical innovator. I’m sick and tired of my artistic heroes dying. But, at the very least, I still have the sounds and the visions.

More on the sad passing of Maurice White from Rolling Stone, NYT, USA Today, BBC News, and CNN.

Image: Maurice White performing with Earth, Wind, and Fire at the Ahoy Rotterdam; 1982. Courtesy: Chris Hakkens – http://www.flickr.com/photos/chris_hakkens/4638840128/in/photostream/

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A Painful End

This should come as no surprise — advances to our understanding of biochemical and genetic processes seem to make the news with ever-increasing regularity. Researchers seem to have found the mechanism for switching physical pain on and off in mammals. They recently succeeded in blocking and restoring pain signals in mice. And, through the same discovery have been able to restore the sensation in a woman who has an extremely rare condition that makes her unable to feel any pain. It’s all in the Nav1.7 sodium ion channel and in its regulation of opioid peptides.

Fascinating, but where will this lead us? And, more to the point, will there ever be a pill to end the interminable pain of the US political process?

From ars technica:

Physical pain is a near universal problem, whether its sudden pangs or chronic aches. Yet, researchers’ efforts to quash it completely have fallen short—possibly due to a moonlighting channel in nerve cells. But that may be about to change.

The sodium ion channel, called Nav1.7, helps generate the electrical signals that surge through pain-related nerve cells. It’s known to play a key role in pain, but researchers’ past attempts to power-down its charged activities did little to soothe suffering. In a bit of a shocking twist, researchers figured out why; the channel has a second, un-channel-like function—regulating painkilling molecules called opioid peptides. That revelation, published in Nature Communications, provided researchers with the know-how to reverse painlessness in a woman with a rare condition, plus make mice completely pain free.

The link between Nav1.7 and opioid painkillers is “fascinating,” Claire Gaveriaux-Ruff, a pain researcher and professor at the University of Strasbourg, told Ars. And, she added, “this discovery brings hope to the many patients suffering from pain that are not yet adequately treated with the available pain medications.”

That source of hope has been a long time coming, John N. Wood, lead author of the study and a neuroscientist at University College London, told Ars. Researchers have been interested in Nav1.7 for years, he said. Excitement peaked in 2006 when scientists reported finding a family who lacked the channel and could feel no pain at all. After that, researchers excitedly scrambled to relieve pain with Nav1.7-blocking drugs. But the drugs inexplicably failed, Wood said. “So we thought, well maybe this channel isn’t just a channel, maybe it’s got some other activities as well.”

Using genetically engineered mice, Wood and colleagues found that completely shutting off Nav1.7 not only made mice pain-free, it cranked up their amount of opioid peptides in nerve cells. These molecules are natural painkillers that help the body moderate pain responses. In these Nav1.7-lacking mice, opioid levels were extremely high, blunting all twinges and throbs. When the researchers gave the mice a drug that blocks those opioids, the animals could feel pain normally. (The opioid-blocking drug, naloxone, treats overdoses of opioid drugs, such as morphine and codeine.)

Even more promising, Wood and colleagues saw the same result in a person. The test subject, a 39-year-old woman with a rare mutation that shuts off Nav1.7, had been pain-free all her life. But, when the researchers gave her a dose of the opioid-blocking naloxone, she felt pain for the first time—the sting of a tiny laser. She was happy to go back to her normal, painless state after the drug wore off, Wood reported. But, she hopes that the drug treatment can be used in children with the pain-free condition to keep them from unknowingly injuring themselves.

Read the entire article here.

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Hate Crimes and the Google Correlation

Google-search-hate-speechIt had never occurred to me, but it makes perfect sense: there’s a direct correlation between Muslim hates crimes and Muslim hate searches on Google. For that matter, there is probably a correlation between other types of hate speech and hate crimes — women, gays, lesbians, bosses, blacks, whites, bad drivers, religion X. But it is certainly the case that Muslims and the Islamic religion are taking the current brunt both online and in the real world.

Clearly, we have a long way to go in learning that entire populations are not to blame for the criminal acts of a few. However, back to the correlations.

Mining of Google search data shows indisputable relationships. As the researchers point out, “When Islamophobic searches are at their highest levels, such as during the controversy over the ‘ground zero mosque’ in 2010 or around the anniversary of 9/11, hate crimes tend to be at their highest levels, too.” Interestingly enough there are currently just over 50 daily searches for “I hate my boss” in the US. In November there were 120 searches per day for “I hate Muslims”.

So, here’s an idea. Let’s get Google to replace the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on the search page (who uses that anyway) with “I’m Feeling Hateful”. This would make the search more productive for those needing to vent their hatred.

More from NYT:

HOURS after the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., on Dec. 2, and minutes after the media first reported that at least one of the shooters had a Muslim-sounding name, a disturbing number of Californians had decided what they wanted to do with Muslims: kill them.

The top Google search in California with the word “Muslims” in it was “kill Muslims.” And the rest of America searched for the phrase “kill Muslims” with about the same frequency that they searched for “martini recipe,” “migraine symptoms” and “Cowboys roster.”

People often have vicious thoughts. Sometimes they share them on Google. Do these thoughts matter?

Yes. Using weekly data from 2004 to 2013, we found a direct correlation between anti-Muslim searches and anti-Muslim hate crimes.

We measured Islamophobic sentiment by using common Google searches that imply hateful attitudes toward Muslims. A search for “are all Muslims terrorists?” for example leaves little to the imagination about what the searcher really thinks. Searches for “I hate Muslims” are even clearer.

When Islamophobic searches are at their highest levels, such as during the controversy over the “ground zero mosque” in 2010 or around the anniversary of 9/11, hate crimes tend to be at their highest levels, too.

In 2014, according to the F.B.I., anti-Muslim hate crimes represented 16.3 percent of the total of 1,092 reported offenses. Anti-Semitism still led the way as a motive for hate crimes, at 58.2 percent.

Hate crimes may seem chaotic and unpredictable, a consequence of random neurons that happen to fire in the brains of a few angry young men. But we can explain some of the rise and fall of anti-Muslim hate crimes just based on what people are Googling about Muslims.

The frightening thing is this: If our model is right, Islamophobia and thus anti-Muslim hate crimes are currently higher than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Although it will take awhile for the F.B.I. to collect and analyze the data before we know whether anti-Muslim hate crimes are in fact rising spectacularly now, Islamophobic searches in the United States were 10 times higher the week after the Paris attacks than the week before. They have been elevated since then and rose again after the San Bernardino attack.

According to our model, when all the data is analyzed by the F.B.I., there will have been more than 200 anti-Muslim attacks in 2015, making it the worst year since 2001.

How can these Google searches track Islamophobia so well? Who searches for “I hate Muslims” anyway?

We often think of Google as a source from which we seek information directly, on topics like the weather, who won last night’s game or how to make apple pie. But sometimes we type our uncensored thoughts into Google, without much hope that Google will be able to help us. The search window can serve as a kind of confessional.

There are thousands of searches every year, for example, for “I hate my boss,” “people are annoying” and “I am drunk.” Google searches expressing moods, rather than looking for information, represent a tiny sample of everyone who is actually thinking those thoughts.

There are about 1,600 searches for “I hate my boss” every month in the United States. In a survey of American workers, half of the respondents said that they had left a job because they hated their boss; there are about 150 million workers in America.

In November, there were about 3,600 searches in the United States for “I hate Muslims” and about 2,400 for “kill Muslims.” We suspect these Islamophobic searches represent a similarly tiny fraction of those who had the same thoughts but didn’t drop them into Google.

“If someone is willing to say ‘I hate them’ or ‘they disgust me,’ we know that those emotions are as good a predictor of behavior as actual intent,” said Susan Fiske, a social psychologist at Princeton, pointing to 50 years of psychology research on anti-black bias. “If people are making expressive searches about Muslims, it’s likely to be tied to anti-Muslim hate crime.”

Google searches seem to suffer from selection bias: Instead of asking a random sample of Americans how they feel, you just get information from those who are motivated to search. But this restriction may actually help search data predict hate crimes.

Read more here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Robotic Stock Keeping

Tally-robot-simbe

Meet Tally and it may soon be coming to a store near you. Tally is an autonomous robot that patrols store aisles and scans shelves to ensure items are correctly stocked. While the robot doesn’t do the restocking itself — beware stock clerk, this is probably only a matter of time — it audits shelves for out-of-stock items, low stock items, misplaced items, and pricing errors. The robot was developed by start-up Simbe Robotics.

From Technology Review:

When customers can’t find a product on a shelf it’s an inconvenience. But by some estimates, it adds up to billions of dollars of lost revenue each year for retailers around the world.

A new shelf-scanning robot called Tally could help ensure that customers never leave a store empty-handed. It roams the aisles and automatically records which shelves need to be restocked.

The robot, developed by a startup called Simbe Robotics, is the latest effort to automate some of the more routine work done in millions of warehouses and retail stores. It is also an example of the way robots and AI will increasingly take over parts of people’s jobs rather than replacing them.

Restocking shelves is simple but hugely important for retailers. Billions of dollars may be lost each year because products are missing, misplaced, or poorly arranged, according to a report from the analyst firm IHL Services. In a large store it can take hundreds of hours to inspect shelves manually each week.

Brad Bogolea, CEO and cofounder of Simbe Robotics, says his company’s robot can scan the shelves of a small store, like a modest CVS or Walgreens, in about an hour. A very large retailer might need several robots to patrol its premises. He says the robot will be offered on a subscription basis but did not provide the pricing. Bogolea adds that one large retailer is already testing the machine.

Tally automatically roams a store, checking whether a shelf needs restocking; whether a product has been misplaced or poorly arranged; and whether the prices shown on shelves are correct. The robot consists of a wheeled platform with four cameras that scan the shelves on either side from the floor up to a height of eight feet.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Tally. Courtesy of Simbe Robotics.

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PhotoMash: Honey Boo-Boo and Trump’s Jihadists

Oh, the Washington Post is the source that keeps on giving. We’re only a few days into 2016, and the newspaper’s online editors continue to deliver wonderfully juxtaposed stories that highlight the peculiar absurdity of contemporary (American) “news”.

Photomash-honey-booboo-vs-donald-for-isis

This photomash (or more appropriately “storymash”) comes to us from the Washington Post, January 2, 2016. Both subjects are courtesy of our odd fascination with the hideous monsters created by reality TV.

The first story describes Discovery Communications re-awakening; aiming to move away from the reality trash TV of Honey Boo Boo. The second, highlights our move towards the new phenomenon of reality trash politics spearheaded by the comb-overed-one.

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High Altitude Snake Oil

IMG_4353

I can attest to the fact that living at high altitude, say above 6,000 ft, has it’s benefits. The air is usually crisper and cleaner, and the views go on forever. But, one of the drawbacks is that the air is also thinner; there’s less oxygen floating around. Some people are more susceptible to the oxygen deficit than others. The milder symptoms usually manifest themselves in the form of headache, dizziness and disorientation. In more serious cases, acute mountain sickness (AMS) can lead to severe nausea, cognitive impairment and, even, death. When AMS strikes the best advice is to seek a lower elevation immediately and rest.

But, of course, wherever there is a human ailment, there will be a snake oil salesman ready to peddle a miraculous new cure; and AMS is no different. So, if you’re visiting the high country soon beware of the altitude revival massage, oxygen-rich structured water and the high altitude lotions. Caveat emptor.

From the NYT:

When the pop band Panic! at the Disco played in Colorado at the Red Rocks amphitheater more than a mile above sea level, the frontman, Brendon Urie, joked that his “drug of choice” was oxygen.

Mr. Urie tripled his elevation to 6,400 feet when he traveled from a gig in Las Vegas to the stage outside Denver in October, so he kept an oxygen tank nearby for quick hits when he felt what he called “lightheaded” during the performance.

“It acted as a kind of security blanket,” he said in an email.

And there are a lot of security blankets being sold to Rocky Mountain visitors: oxygen therapies, oils, pills and wristbands, to name a few. They come with claims of preventing or reducing altitude sickness, promises that in most cases aren’t backed by research.

Still, many skiers are willing to spend freely on these treatments, and perhaps it’s not surprising. People can be desperate to salvage their vacations when the thin air causes headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness and worse. But acute mountain sickness (AMS) can be a serious condition, so it behooves travelers to understand that it can often be prevented, and that if it strikes, not all remedies are equal.

Over the last two decades, 32 people have died in Colorado from the effects of high altitude, according to data provided by Mark Salley, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In addition, there were 1,350 trips to the state’s emergency rooms for altitude sickness last year, with 85 percent of those patients coming from out of state, he said.

Not everyone is affected by altitude, but among visitors to Colorado’s Summit County — location of the ski resorts Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Arapahoe Basin, Loveland and Keystone — 22 percent of those staying at 7,000 to 9,000 feet experienced AMS, while at 10,000 feet, it rose to 42 percent, according to medical studies cited in an article by Dr. Peter Hackett and Robert Roach published in The New England Journal of Medicine in July 2001.

It’s impossible to predict who will be affected, though research has found that those who are obese tend to be more susceptible. Meanwhile, those over age 60 have a slightly lower risk. But whether a person is a child or adult, male or female, fit or out of shape doesn’t seem to make a significant difference, said Mr. Roach, now director of the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colo.

Acute mountain sickness is caused by the lack of oxygen in the lower air pressure that exists at higher altitudes. It usually doesn’t affect people below 8,000 feet, although it can, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“It’s horrible,” said Laura Lane, 32, who, despite living at 5,000 feet in Fort Collins, Colo., is one of those routinely affected by higher elevations. Early on, it makes her nauseated and gives her a “crushing” feeling, while simultaneously making her feel as if her head “is being split in two,” she said.

Read the entire article here.

Image: View from South Arapaho Peak, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado. Altitude 13,397 ft. Courtesy of the author.

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Congressional Climate Science Twilight Zone

Kiribati-Marshall-Islands-001

By its own actions (or lack thereof) and admissions the US Congress is a place where nothing gets done, and that nothing is done by non-experts who know nothing — other than politics, of course. So, when climate science skeptics in the US Senate held their most recent, “scientific” hearing, titled: “Data or Dogma: Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth’s Climate”, you can imagine what ensued.

Without an ironic nod to the name of their own hearing, Senators proceeded to inquire only from scientists who support the idea that human created climate change is a myth. Our Senators decried the climate change lobby for persecuting this minority, suggesting that their science should carry as much weight as that from the other camp. Yet this sham of an “open inquiry” fails to recognize that 99 percent of peer-reviewed climate science is unequivocal in pointing the finger at humans. Our so-called leaders, yet again, continue to do us all — the whole planet — a thorough disservice.

By the way, the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Competitiveness is chaired by Senator Ted Cruz. He believes that his posse of climate change deniers are latter-day Galileo Galileis — a persecuted minority. But he fails to recognize that they are in the minority because the real science shows the minority to be wrong; Galileo was in the minority, but he was backed by science, not dogmatic opinion. I think Senator Cruz would make a great president, in the time of Galileo Galilei, since that is where his understanding of “science” and the scientific method still seems to reside.

From Wired:

You are entering the world of another dimension—a dimension of sight (look at the people who don’t like scientists), of sound (people talking a lot), and of mind (well, maybe not so much). There’s the signpost for the Dirksen Senate Office Building up ahead. Your next stop: Senator Ted Cruz’s hearing on climate change earlier this week, which felt very much like something from the Twilight Zone.

Cruz himself is an intense guy in a dark suit—but that’s where the evident similarities between the senator and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling end. Serling was an abject, romantic humanist. Cruz’s hearing was more like one of the side-shifted worlds Twilight Zone stories always seemed to happen in, at the crossroads of science and superstition, fear and knowledge.

Stranger than the choreography and theatrics (police tossed a protester, Cruz spent plenty of time denouncing a witness who either didn’t show up or wasn’t invited, and a Canadian blogger barely contained his anger during a back-and-forth with Democratic Senator Ed Markey) was the topsy-turvy line of questioning pursued by Cruz, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Competitiveness.

He opened the hearing—“Data or Dogma: Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth’s Climate”—with a tale of a 2013 expedition by New Zealand scientists. They were investigating Antarctic sea ice—”ice that the climate-industrial complex had assured us was vanishing,” Cruz said. “It was there to document how the ice was vanishing in the Antarctic, but the ship became stuck. It had run into an inconvenient truth, as Al Gore might put it. Facts matter, science matters, data matters.”

So OK. To bolster that us-versus-them narrative, Cruz invited scientists who believe they are being persecuted (or denied government funding)—just like Galileo was by the Catholic Church, they kept saying.

The other side of the aisle responded that these scientists aren’t being funded because their research and ideas don’t measure up to peer-review standards—or are just plain wrong.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Demon Town cemetery in Majuro has lost many graves during a decade of constant inundations. The local people have moved their relatives’ remains and graves further inland, 2008. Courtesy of The Marshall Island Journal / Guardian Newspapers.

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The Random Darknet Shopper

Good art pushes our boundaries; it causes us to question our accepted views and perceptions. Good art makes us think.

So, here’s a great example — the Random Darknet Shopper.

Briefly, the Random Darknet Shopper is an automated shopping robot; actually an automated process running on a laptop. It makes random purchases online, and then has its booty delivered to an art gallery in London where it is displayed. Once a week the shopping bot will spend up to $100 on Alpha Bay, one of the Darknet’s largest marketplaces — a trade zone for many dubious and often illegal goods and services.

Google-search-RDS

During its first run from October 2014 to January 2015, the Random Darknet Shopper bought a dozen items from the deepweb market Agora, including: replica Diesel jeans, Hungarian passport scan, Sprite stash can, baseball cap with integrated spy camera, ecstasy pills, fake Nike trainers, platinum Visa credit card.

This may not be altogether visually appealing, but it’s thought provoking nonetheless, with an added twist — the artists and art gallery may end up in legal hot water should the robot make some dubious purchases.

Read more about the artists and the project.

From the Independent:

On balance, it’s unlikely that police will swoop on a south London art gallery this week and apprehend a laptop that will be busy making random purchases from a secretive part of the web known as the Darknet.

Then again, it depends what the automated shopping ’bot known as Random Darknet Shopper chooses to buy online and have delivered to the gallery. Fake trainers or a counterfeit designer T-shirt are unlikely to attract the interest of the authorities, but Class A drugs or a gun would be a different matter.

“We just don’t know what’s going to turn up [at the gallery] which is what makes it difficult legally,” said Susan Singleton, the solicitor who has provided legal advice to the Swiss artists who designed the Shopper. “The major caveat here is that the artists are not telling it to buy drugs, so they wouldn’t be responsible. But once the goods come into their possession you move to an entirely separate set of offences.”

Artists Domagoj Smoljo and Carmen Weisskopf are well aware that their creation may land them in hot water when it begins an eight-week shopping spree at the Horatio Junior gallery in Rotherhithe on Friday. Every Wednesday, the ’bot will spend up to $100 (£66) in Bitcoins on an item selected at random from Alpha Bay, one of the largest marketplaces on the Darknet. Each item will be delivered to the gallery, where the artists will add them to a display they describe as a “Darknet landscape”.

“It is both exciting and nerve wracking,” said Smoljo, 36, who created the Shopper with Weisskopf, 39, last year as a means of exploring and understanding a secret part of the web. “I sleep badly the night before it goes shopping  … it is something that is out of our control. We feel vulnerable, but at the same time we like it.”

When Darknet Shopper was exhibited in Switzerland last year its random purchases included a pair of fake Nike trainers, counterfeit designer jeans from China and 10 packets of cigarettes from Ukraine. Swiss police took an interest when it added a bag of 10 ecstasy tablets to its haul and the pills were put on display.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Fight or Flight (or Record?)

Google-search-danger

Psychologists, social scientists and researchers of the human brain have long maintained that we have three typical responses to an existential, usually physical, threat. First, we may stand our ground to tackle and fight the threat. Second, we may turn and run from danger. Third, we may simply freeze with indecision and inaction. These responses have been studied, documented and confirmed over the decades. Further, they tend to mirror those of other animals when faced with a life-threatening situation.

But, now that humans have entered the smartphone age, it appears that there is a fourth response — to film or record the threat. This may seem hard to believe and foolhardy, but quite disturbingly it’s is a growing trend, especially among younger people.

From the Telegraph:

If you witnessed a violent attack on an innocent victim, would you:

a) help
b) run
c) freeze

Until now, that was the hypothetical question we all asked ourselves when reading about horrific events such as terror attacks.

What survival instinct would come most naturally? Fight or flight?

No longer. Over the last couple of years it’s become very obvious that there’s a fourth option:

d) record it all on your smartphone.

This reaction of filming traumatic events has become more prolific in recent weeks. Last month’s terror attacks in Paris saw mobile phone footage of people being shot, photos of bodies lying in the street, and perhaps most memorably, a pregnant woman clinging onto a window ledge.

Saturday [December 5, 2015] night saw another example when a terror suspect started attacking passengers on the Tube at Leytonstone Station. Most of the horrific incident was captured on video, as people stood filming him.

One brave man, 33-year-old engineer David Pethers, tried to fight the attacker. He ended up with a cut to the neck as he tried to protect passing children. But while he was intervening, others just held up their phones.

“There were so many opportunities where someone could have grabbed him,” he told the Daily Mail. “One guy came up to me afterwards and said ‘well done, I want to shake your hand, you are the only one who did anything, I got the whole thing on film.’

“I was so angry, I nearly turned on him but I walked away. I though, ‘Are you crazy? You are standing there filming and did nothing.’ I was really angry afterwards.”

It’s hard to disagree. Most of us know heroism is rare and admirable. We can easily understand people trying to escape and save themselves, or even freezing in the face of terror.

But deliberately doing nothing and choosing to film the whole thing? That’s a lot harder to sympathise with.

Psychotherapist Richard Reid agrees – “the sensible option would be to think about your own safety and get out, or think about helping people” – but he says it’s important we understand this new reaction.

“Because events like terror attacks are so outside our experience, people don’t fully connect with it,” he explains.

“It’s like they’re watching a film. It doesn’t occur to them they could be in danger or they could be helping. The reality only sinks in after the event. It’s a natural phenomenon. It’s not necessarily the most useful response, but we have to accept it.”

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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A Googol Years From Now

If humanity makes it the next few years and decades without destroying itself and the planet, we can ponder the broader fate of our universal home. Assuming humanity escapes the death of our beautiful local star (in 4-5 billion years or so) and the merging of our very own Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy (around 7-10 billion years), we’ll be toast in a googol years. Actually, we and everything else in the cosmos will be more like a cold, dark particle soup. By the way, a googol is a rather large number — 10100. That gives us plenty of time to fix ourselves.

From Space:

Yes, the universe is dying. Get over it.

 Well, let’s back up. The universe, as defined as “everything there is, in total summation,” isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Or ever. If the universe changes into something else far into the future, well then, that’s just more universe, isn’t it?

But all the stuff in the universe? That’s a different story. When we’re talking all that stuff, then yes, everything in the universe is dying, one miserable day at a time.

You may not realize it by looking at the night sky, but the ultimate darkness is already settling in. Stars first appeared on the cosmic stage rather early — more than 13 billion years ago; just a few hundred million years into this Great Play. But there’s only so much stuff in the universe, and only so many opportunities to make balls of it dense enough to ignite nuclear fusion, creating the stars that fight against the relentless night.

The expansion of the universe dilutes everything in it, meaning there are fewer and fewer chances to make the nuclear magic happen. And around 10 billion years ago, the expansion reached a tipping point. The matter in the cosmos was spread too thin. The engines of creation shut off. The curtain was called: the epoch of peak star formation has already passed, and we are currently living in the wind-down stage. Stars are still born all the time, but the birth rate is dropping.

At the same time, that dastardly dark energy is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate, ripping galaxies away from each other faster than the speed of light (go ahead, say that this violates some law of physics, I dare you), drawing them out of the range of any possible contact — and eventually, visibility — with their neighbors. With the exception of the Andromeda Galaxy and a few pathetic hangers-on, no other galaxies will be visible. We’ll become very lonely in our observable patch of the universe.

The infant universe was a creature of heat and light, but the cosmos of the ancient future will be a dim, cold animal.

The only consolation is the time scale involved. You thought 14 billion years was a long time? The numbers I’m going to present are ridiculous, even with exponential notation. You can’t wrap your head around it. They’re just … big.

For starters, we have at least 2 trillion years until the last sun is born, but the smallest stars will continue to burn slow and steady for another 100 trillion years in a cosmic Children of Men. Our own sun will be long gone by then, heaving off its atmosphere within the next 5 billion years and charcoaling the Earth. Around the same time, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will collide, making a sorry mess of the local system.

At the end of this 100-trillion-year “stelliferous” era, the universe will only be left with the … well, leftovers: white dwarves (some cooled to black dwarves), neutron stars and black holes. Lots of black holes.

Welcome to the Degenerate Era, a state that is as sad as it sounds. But even that isn’t the end game. Oh no, it gets worse. After countless gravitational interactions, planets will get ejected from their decaying systems and galaxies themselves will dissolve. Losing cohesion, our local patch of the universe will be a disheveled wreck of a place, with dim, dead stars scattered about randomly and black holes haunting the depths.

The early universe was a very strange place, and the late universe will be equally bizarre. Given enough time, things that seem impossible become commonplace, and objects that appear immutable … uh, mutate. Through a process called quantum tunneling, any solid object will slowly “leak” atoms, dissolving. Because of this, gone will be the white dwarves, the planets, the asteroids, the solid.

Even fundamental particles are not immune: given 10^34 years, the neutrons in neutron stars will break apart into their constituent particles. We don’t yet know if the proton is stable, but if it isn’t, it’s only got 10^40 years before it meets its end.

With enough time (and trust me, we’ve got plenty of time), the universe will consist of nothing but light particles (electrons, neutrinos and their ilk), photons and black holes. The black holes themselves will probably dissolve via Hawking Radiation, briefly illuminating the impenetrable darkness as they decay.

After 10^100 years (but who’s keeping track at this point?), nothing macroscopic remains. Just a weak soup of particles and photons, spread so thin that they hardly ever interact.

Read the entire article here.

In case, you’ve forgotten, a googol is 10100 (10 to the power of 100) or 10 followed by 100 zeros. And, yes, that’s how the company Google derived its name.

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Now We Can All Be Michael Scott And Number 6

Or, if you are from the UK — you can be David Brent. That is, we can all aspire to be a terrible boss. And, it’s all courtesy of the techno-enabled Uberified gig-economy.

Those of us who have a boss will identify with the mostly excruciating ritual that is the annual performance review; your work, your attitude, your personality is dissected, sliced and diced, scored, rated and ranked. However, as traumatic as this may be for you, remember that at least your boss actually interacts (usually) with you, and may actually have come to know you (somewhat), over a period of some years.

But, how would it feel to be evaluated in this way — scored and rated — by complete strangers during a fleeting interaction that may only have lasted minutes? Online social media tools make this scoring wonderfully easy and convenient — just check a box or select 1-5 stars or a thumbs up/down. Add to this the sharing / gig economy, and we now have millions of people ready (and eager) to score millions of others for waiting tables, chauffeuring a car, delivering pizza, writing an app, cleaning a house, walking your dog, mowing your lawn. And, the list grows each day. Thus, you may be an employee to any numbers of managers throughout each day — it’s just that each manager is actually one of your customers, and each customer is armed with your score.

Where will this lead us? Should we rank our partners and spouses each day, indeed, several times each day? Will we score our kids for table etiquette, manners, talk-back? Should we score the check-out employee, the bank clerk, the bus driver, barista, nurse practitioner, car mechanic, surgeon? Ugh.

But you can certainly see why corporate executives are falling over themselves to have customers anonymously score their customer-facing employees. For the process devolves power to the customer, and removes management from having to make the once tough personnel decisions. So, why not have hordes of anonymous reviews and aggregated scores from customers determine the fate of low-level service employees? This would seem to be the ultimate customer service.

Yet, by replacing the human connection between employer/customer and employee/service worker with scores and algorithms we are further commoditizing ourselves. We erode our humanity by allowing ourselves to be quantified and enumerated, and for doing the same to others, known and unknown. Having the power to score and rate another person at the press of a finger — anonymously — may make for savvy 21st century management but it makes for a colder, crueler world, which increasingly reads like a dystopian novel.

From the Verge:

Soon, you’ll be able to go to the Olive Garden and order your fettuccine alfredo from a tablet mounted to the table. After paying, you’ll rate the server.

Then you can use that tablet to hail an Uber driver, whom you’ll also rate, from one to five stars. You can take it to your Airbnb, which you’ll award one to five stars across several categories, and get a TaskRabbit or Postmates worker to pick up groceries — rate them too. Maybe you’ll check on the web developer you’ve hired through Upwork, perusing the screenshots taken automatically from her computer, and think about how you’ll rate her when the job is done. You could hire someone from Handy to clean the place before you leave. More stars.

The on-demand economy has scrambled the roles of employer and employee in ways that courts and regulators are just beginning to parse. So far, the debate has focused on whether workers should be contractors or employees, a question sometimes distilled into an argument about who’s the boss: are workers their own bosses, as the companies often claim, or is the platform their boss, policing their work through algorithms and rules?

But there’s a third party that’s often glossed over: the customer. The rating systems used by these companies have turned customers into unwitting and sometimes unwittingly ruthless middle managers, more efficient than any boss a company could hope to hire. They’re always there, working for free, hypersensitive to the smallest error. All the algorithm has to do is tally up their judgments and deactivate accordingly.

Ratings help these companies to achieve enormous scale, managing large pools of untrained contract workers without having to hire supervisors. It’s a nice arrangement for customers too, who get cheap service with a smile — even if it’s an anxious one. But for the workers, already in the precarious position of contract labor, making every customer a boss is a terrifying prospect. After all, they — we — can be entitled jerks.

“You get pretty good at kissing ass just because you have to,” an Uber driver told me. “Uber and Lyft have created this monstrous brand of customer where they expect Ritz Carlton service at McDonald’s prices.”

In March, when Judge Edward Chen denied Uber’s motion for summary judgement on the California drivers’ class action suit, he seized on the idea that ratings aren’t just a customer feedback tool — they represent a new level of monitoring, far more pervasive than any watchful boss. Customer ratings, Chen wrote, give Uber an “arguably tremendous amount of control over the ‘manner and means’ of its drivers’ performance.” Quoting from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, he wrote that a “state of conscious and permanent visibility assures the automatic functioning of power.”

Starting with Ebay, rating systems have typically been described as way of establishing trust between strangers. Some commentators go so far as to say ratings are more effective than government regulation. “Uber and Airbnb are in fact some of the most regulated ecosystems in the world,” said Joshua Gans, an economist at the University of Toronto, at an FTC workshop earlier this year. Rather than a single certification before you can begin work, everyone is regulated constantly through a system of mutually assured judgment.

Certainly customers sometimes have awful experiences — reckless driving, creepy comments — and the rating system can help report them. But when it comes to policing dangerous behavior, most of these platforms have come to rely not on ratings but on traditional safety measures — identity verification, background checks, and the knowledge that any illegal actions can be investigated and enforced through the tracking devices every worker carries. We can’t rate for criminal histories, poor training, or negligent car maintenance.

So what do we rate for? We rate for the routes drivers take, for price fluctuations beyond their control, for slow traffic, for refusing to speed, for talking too much or too little, for failing to perform large tasks unrealistically quickly, for the food being cold when they delivered it, for telling us that, No, we can’t bring beer in the car and put our friend in the trunk — really, for any reason at all, including subconscious biases about race or gender, a proven problem on many crowdsourced platforms. This would be a nuisance if feedback were just feedback, but ratings have become the primary metric in automated systems determining employment. If you imagine the things customers rate down for as firing decisions in a traditional workplace, they look capricious and harsh. It’s a strange amount of power for customers to hold, all the more so considering that many don’t know they wield it.

Sometimes, as in Uber’s system, workers have the opportunity to rate customers back. An Uber spokesperson told me that, “Uber’s priority is to connect you with a safe, reliable ride — no matter who you are, where you’re coming from, or where you’re going. Achieving that goal for our community means maintaining an environment of mutual accountability and respect. We want everyone to have a great ride, every time, and two-way feedback is one of the many ways we work to make that possible. “

Read more here.

Video: The Prisoner – I’m not a number, I’m a free man! 1967. Courtesy: Patrick  McGoohan / ITC Entertainment.

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Re-Innovation: Silicon Valley’s Trivial Pursuit Problem

I read and increasing number of articles like the one excerpted below, which cause me to sigh with exasperation yet again. Is Silicon Valley — that supposed beacon of global innovation — in danger of becoming a drainage ditch of regurgitated sameness, of me-too banality?

It’s frustrating to watch many of our self-proclaimed brightest tech minds re-package colorful “new” solutions to our local trivialities, yet again, and over and over. So, here we are, celebrating the arrival of the “next big thing”; the next tech unicorn with a valuation above $1 billion, which proposes to upend and improve all our lives, yet again.

DoorDash. Seamless. Deliveroo. HelloFresh. HomeChef. SpoonRocket. Sprig. GrubHub. Instacart. These are all great examples of too much money chasing too few truly original ideas. I hope you’ll agree: a cool compound name is a cool compound name, but it certainly does not for innovation make. By the way, whatever happened to WebVan?

Where are my slippers? Yawn.

From Wired:

Founded in 2013, DoorDash is a food delivery service. It’s also the latest startup to be eying a valuation of more than $1 billion. DoorDash already raised $40 million in March; according to Bloomberg, it may soon reap another round of funding that would put the company in the same lofty territory as Uber, Airbnb, and more than 100 other so-called unicorns.

Not that DoorDash is doing anything terribly original. Startups bringing food to your door are everywhere. There’s Instacart, which wants to shop for groceries for you. Deliveroo and Postmastes, like DoorDash, are looking to overtake Seamless as the way we get takeout at home. Munchery, SpoonRocket, and Sprig offer pre-made meals. Blue Apron, Gobble, HelloFresh, and HomeChef deliver ingredients to make the food ourselves. For the moment, investors are giddily rushing to subsidize this race to our doors. But skeptics say that the payout those investors are banking on might never come.

Even in a crowded field, funding for these delivery startups continues to grow. CB Insights, a research group that tracks startup investments, said this summer that the sector was “starting to get a little crowded.” Last year, venture-backed food delivery startups based in the US reaped more than $1 billion in equity funding; during first half of this year, they pulled in $750 million more, CB Insights found.

The enormous waves of funding may prove money poorly spent if Silicon Valley finds itself in a burst bubble. Bill Gurley, the well-known investor and a partner at venture firm Benchmark, believes delivery startups may soon be due for a rude awakening. Unlike the first dotcom bubble, he said, smartphones might offer help, because startups are able to collect more data. But he compared the optimism investors are showing for such low-margin operations to the misplaced enthusiasms of 1999.  “It’s the same shit,” Gurley said during a recent appearance. (Gurley’s own investment in food delivery service, GrubHub, went public in April 2014 and is now valued at more than $2.2 billion.)

Read the entire article here.

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Rudeness Goes Viral

We know intuitively, anecdotally and through scientific study that aggressive behavior can be transmitted to others through imitation. The famous Bobo doll experiment devised by researchers at Stanford University in the early 1960s, and numerous precursors, showed that subjects given an opportunity to observe aggressive models later reproduced a good deal of physical and verbal aggression substantially identical with that of the model. In these studies the model was usually someone with a higher social status or with greater authority (e.g., an adult) than the observer (e.g., a child).

Recent updates to these studies now show that low-intensity behaviors such as rudeness can be as equally contagious as more intense behaviors like violence. Fascinatingly, the contagion seems to work equally well even if the model and observer are peers.

So, keep this in mind: watching rude behaviors leads us to be rude to others.

From Scientific American:

Flu season is nearly upon us, and in an effort to limit contagion and spare ourselves misery, many of us will get vaccinated. The work of Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis has helped restrict the spread of the nasty bug for generations, and the influenza vaccine is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives. But before the vaccine could be developed, scientists first had to identify the cause of influenza — and, importantly, recognize that it was contagious.

New research by Trevor Foulk, Andrew Woolum, and Amir Erez at the University of Florida takes that same first step in identifying a different kind of contagious menace: rudeness. In a series of studies, Foulk and colleagues demonstrate that being the target of rude behavior, or even simply witnessing rude behavior, induces rudeness. People exposed to rude behavior tend to have concepts associated with rudeness activated in their minds, and consequently may interpret ambiguous but benign behaviors as rude. More significantly, they themselves are more likely to behave rudely toward others, and to evoke hostility, negative affect, and even revenge from others.

The finding that negative behavior can beget negative behavior is not exactly new, as researchers demonstrated decades ago that individuals learn vicariously and will repeat destructive actions.  In the now infamous Bobo doll experiment, for example, children who watched an adult strike a Bobo doll with a mallet or yell at it were themselves abusive toward the doll.  Similarly, supervisors who believe they are mistreated by managers tend to pass on this mistreatment to their employees.

Previous work on the negative contagion effect, however, has focused primarily on high-intensity behaviors like hitting or abusive supervision that are (thankfully) relatively infrequent in everyday life.  In addition, in most previous studies the destructive behavior was modeled by someone with a higher status than the observer. These extreme negative behaviors may thus get repeated because (a) they are quite salient and (b) the observer is consciously and intentionally trying to emulate the behavior of someone with an elevated social status.

To examine whether this sensitivity impacts social behavior, Foulk’s team conducted another study in which participants were asked to play the part of an employee at a local bookstore.  Participants first observed a video showing either a polite or a rude interaction among coworkers.  They were then asked to respond to an email from a customer.  The email was either neutral (e.g., “I am writing to check on an order I placed a few weeks ago.”), highly aggressive (e.g., “I guess you or one of your incompetent staff must have lost my order.”), or moderately rude (I’m really surprised by this as EVERYBODY said you guys give really good customer service???).

Foulk and colleagues again found that prior exposure to rude behavior creates a specific sensitivity to rudeness. Notably, the type of video participants observed did not affect their responses to the neutral or aggressive emails; instead, the nature of those emails drove the response.  That is, all participants were more likely to send a hostile response to the aggressive email than to neutral email, regardless of whether they had previously observed a polite or rude employee interaction.  However, the type of video participants observed early in the study did affect their interpretation of and response to the rude email.  Those who had seen the polite video adopted a benign interpretation of the moderately rude email and delivered a neutral response, while those who had seen the rude video adopted a malevolent interpretation and delivered a hostile response.  Thus, observing rude behaviors, even those committed by coworkers or peers, resulted in greater sensitivity and heightened response to rudeness.

Read the entire article here.

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Clowns, Ducks and Dancing Girls

OK, OK. I’ve had to break my own rule (again). You know, the one that states that I’m not supposed to write about politics. The subject is far too divisive, I’m told. However, as a US-based, Brit and hence a somewhat removed observer — though I can actually vote — I cannot stay on the sidelines.

Politics-Cruz-ducks-15Jan2016

For US politics and its never-ending election season is a process that must be observed, studied, dissected and savored. After all, it’s not really politics — it’s a hysterically entertaining reality TV show complete with dancing girls, duck hunting, character assassination, clowns, demagogues, guns, hypocrisy, plaid shirts, lies and so much more. Best of all, there are no policies or substantive ideas of any kind; just pure entertainment. Netflix should buy the exclusive rights!

Politics-Trump-rally-15Jan2016

Image, top: Phil Robertson, star of the Duck Dynasty reality TV show, says Cruz is the man for the job because he is godly, loves America, and is willing to kill a duck to make gumbo soup. Courtesy of the Guardian.

Image, bottom, Political rally for Donald Trump featuring gyrating dancing girls and warnings to the “enemy”. Courtesy of Fox News.

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It’s Time for a Cat 6 Hurricane

Patricia_2015-10-23_1730Z

Amateur meteorologist that I am I wonder when my professional colleagues will extend the Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale (SSHWS). Currently the scale classifies hurricanes — western hemisphere tropical cyclones — on a scale of 1 to 5. Category 1 hurricanes encompass winds between 74-95 miles per hour; category 5 storms gyrate in excess of 157 miles per hour. As our global climate becomes increasingly warmer — which it is — our weather is becoming increasingly more volatile and extreme — longer hotter droughts, greater torrential rainfall, higher floods.

Category 5 will soon need to be supplemented. After all, the recent storm to hit the Pacific coast of Mexico — hurricane Patricia — reached sustained winds of 201 miles per hour; Typhoon Haiyan had a top wind spend of only 195 mph when it slammed the Phillippines in 2013 killing over 7,000 residents.

From the NYT:

Hurricane Patricia was a surprise. The eastern Pacific hurricane strengthened explosively before hitting the coast of Mexico, far exceeding projections of scientists who study such storms.

And while the storm’s strength dissipated quickly when it struck land, a question remained. What made it such a monster?

Explanations were all over the map, with theories that included climate change (or not), and El Niño.

But the answer is more complicated. The interplay of all the different kinds of warming going on in the Pacific at the moment can be difficult to sort out and, as with the recent hurricane, attributing a weather event to a single cause is unrealistic.

Gabriel Vecchi, head of the climate variations and predictability group at the geophysical fluid dynamics laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Princeton, N.J., likened the challenge to the board game Clue.

“There’s all these suspects, and we have them all in the room right now,” he said. “The key is to go and systematically figure out who was where and when, so we can exclude people or phenomena.” Extending the metaphor, he noted that criminal suspects could work together as accomplices, and there could be a character not yet known. And, as in all mysteries, “You can have a twist ending.”

At the moment, the world’s largest ocean is a troublesome place, creating storms and causing problems for people and marine life across the Pacific Rim and beyond. A partial list includes the strong El Niño system that has formed along the Equator, and another unusually persistent zone of warm water that has been sitting off the North American coast, wryly called “the Blob.”

And a longer-term cycle of heating and cooling known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation may be switching from a cooling phase to a warming phase. On top of all that is the grinding progress of climate change, caused by accumulation of greenhouse gases generated by human activity.

Each of these phenomena operates on a different time scale, but for now they appear to be synchronized, a little like the way the second hand, minute hand and hour hand line up at the stroke of midnight. And the collective effects could be very powerful.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Hurricane Patricia at peak intensity and approaching the Western Mexico on October 23, 2015. Courtesy: MODIS image, NASA’s Terra satellite. Public Domain.

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The Man With No Phone

If Hitchcock were alive today the title of this post — The Man With No Phone — might be a fitting description of his latest noir, celluloid masterpiece. For in many the notion of being phone-less distills deep nightmarish visions of blood-curdling terror.

Does The Man With No Phone lose track of all reality, family, friends, appointments, status updates, sales records, dinner, grocery list, transportation schedules and news, turning into an empty neurotic shell of a human being? Or, does lack of constant connectivity and elimination of instant, digital gratification lead The Man With No Phone to become a schizoid, feral monster? Let’s read on to find out.

Large swathes of the world are still phone-less, and much of the global population — at least those of us over the age of 35 — grew up smartphone-less and even cellphone-less. So, it’s rather disconcerting to read Steve Hilton’s story; he’s been phone-less for 3 years now. However, it’s not disconcerting that he’s without a phone — I find it inspiring (and normal), it’s disconcerting that many people are wondering how on earth he can live without one. And, even more perplexing — why would anyone need a digital detox or mindfulness app on their smartphone? Just hide the thing in your junk draw for a week (or more) and breathe out. Long live The Man With No Phone!

From the Guardian:

Before you read on, I want to make one thing clear: I’m not trying to convert you. I’m not trying to lecture you or judge you. Honestly, I’m not. It may come over like that here and there, but believe me, that’s not my intent. In this piece, I’m just trying to … explain.

People who knew me in a previous life as a policy adviser to the British prime minister are mildly surprised that I’m now the co-founder and CEO of a tech startup . And those who know that I’ve barely read a book since school are surprised that I have now actually written one.

But the single thing that no one seems able to believe – the thing that apparently demands explanation – is the fact that I am phone-free. That’s right: I do not own a cellphone; I do not use a cellphone. I do not have a phone. No. Phone. Not even an old-fashioned dumb one. Nothing. You can’t call me unless you use my landline – yes, landline! Can you imagine? At home. Or call someone else that I happen to be with (more on that later).

When people discover this fact about my life, they could not be more surprised than if I had let slip that I was actually born with a chicken’s brain. “But how do you live?” they cry. And then: “How does your wife feel about it?” More on that too, later.

As awareness has grown about my phone-free status (and its longevity: this is no passing fad, people – I haven’t had a phone for over three years), I have received numerous requests to “tell my story”. People seem to be genuinely interested in how someone living and working in the heart of the most tech-obsessed corner of the planet, Silicon Valley, can possibly exist on a day-to-day basis without a smartphone.

So here we go. Look, I know it’s not exactly Caitlyn Jenner, but still: here I am, and here’s my story.

In the spring of 2012, I moved to the San Francisco bay area with my wife and two young sons. Rachel was then a senior executive at Google, which involved a punishing schedule to take account of the eight-hour time difference. I had completed two years at 10 Downing Street as senior adviser to David Cameron – let’s just put it diplomatically and say that I and the government machine had had quite enough of each other. To make both of our lives easier, we moved to California.

I took with me my old phone, which had been paid for by the taxpayer. It was an old Nokia phone – I always hated touch-screens and refused to have a smartphone; neither did I want a BlackBerry or any other device on which the vast, endless torrent of government emails could follow me around. Once we moved to the US my government phone account was of course stopped and telephonically speaking, I was on my own.

I tried to get hold of one of my beloved old Nokia handsets, but they were no longer available. Madly, for a couple of months I used old ones procured through eBay, with a pay-as-you-go plan from a UK provider. The handsets kept breaking and the whole thing cost a fortune. Eventually, I had enough when the charging outlet got blocked by sand after a trip to the beach. “I’m done with this,” I thought, and just left it.

I remember the exact moment when I realized something important had happened. I was on my bike, cycling to Stanford, and it struck me that a week had gone by without my having a phone. And everything was just fine. Better than fine, actually. I felt more relaxed, carefree, happier. Of course a lot of that had to do with moving to California. But this was different. I felt this incredibly strong sense of just thinking about things during the day. Being able to organize those thoughts in my mind. Noticing things.

Read the entire story here.

Video: Hanging on the Telephone, Blondie. Courtesy: EMI Music.

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Design Thinking Versus Product Development

Out with product managers; in with design thinkers. Time for some corporate creativity. Think user journeys and empathy roadmaps.

A different corporate mantra is beginning to take hold at some large companies like IBM. It’s called design thinking, and while it’s not necessarily new, it holds promise for companies seeking to meet the needs of their customers at a fundamental level. Where design is often thought of in terms of defining and constructing cool-looking products, design thinking is used to capture a business problem at a broader level, shape business strategy and deliver a more holistic, deeper solution to customers. And, importantly, to do so more quickly than through a typical product development life-cycle.

From NYT:

Phil Gilbert is a tall man with a shaved head and wire-rimmed glasses. He typically wears cowboy boots and bluejeans to work — hardly unusual these days, except he’s an executive at IBM, a company that still has a button-down suit-and-tie reputation. And in case you don’t get the message from his wardrobe, there’s a huge black-and-white photograph hanging in his office of a young Bob Dylan, hunched over sheet music, making changes to songs in the “Highway 61 Revisited” album. It’s an image, Mr. Gilbert will tell you, that conveys both a rebel spirit and hard work.

Let’s not get carried away. Mr. Gilbert, who is 59 years old, is not trying to redefine an entire generation. On the other hand, he wants to change the habits of a huge company as it tries to adjust to a new era, and that is no small task.

IBM, like many established companies, is confronting the relentless advance of digital technology. For these companies, the question is: Can you grow in the new businesses faster than your older, lucrative businesses decline?

Mr. Gilbert answers that question with something called design thinking. (His title is general manager of design.) Among other things, design thinking flips traditional technology product development on its head. The old way is that you come up with a new product idea and then try to sell it to customers. In the design thinking way, the idea is to identify users’ needs as a starting point.

Mr. Gilbert and his team talk a lot about “iteration cycles,” “lateral thinking,” “user journeys” and “empathy maps.” To the uninitiated, the canons of design thinking can sound mushy and self-evident. But across corporate America, there is a rising enthusiasm for design thinking not only to develop products but also to guide strategy and shape decisions of all kinds. The September cover article of the Harvard Business Review was “The Evolution of Design Thinking.” Venture capital firms are hiring design experts, and so are companies in many industries.

Still, the IBM initiative stands out. The company is well on its way to hiring more than 1,000 professional designers, and much of its management work force is being trained in design thinking. “I’ve never seen any company implement it on the scale of IBM,” said William Burnett, executive director of the design program at Stanford University. “To try to change a culture in a company that size is a daunting task.”

Daunting seems an understatement. IBM has more than 370,000 employees. While its revenues are huge, the company’s quarterly reports have shown them steadily declining in the last two years. The falloff in revenue is partly intentional, as the company sold off less profitable operations, but the sometimes disappointing profits are not, and they reflect IBM’s struggle with its transition. Last month, the company shaved its profit target for 2015.

In recent years, the company has invested heavily in new fields, including data analytics, cloud computing, mobile technology, security, social media software for business and its Watson artificial intelligence technology. Those businesses are growing rapidly, generating revenue of $25 billion last year, and IBM forecasts that they will contribute $40 billion by 2018, through internal growth and acquisitions. Just recently, for example, IBM agreed to pay $2 billion for the Weather Company (not including its television channel), gaining its real-time and historical weather data to feed into Watson and analytics software.

But IBM’s biggest businesses are still the traditional ones — conventional hardware, software and services — which contribute 60 percent of its revenue and most of its profit. And these IBM mainstays are vulnerable, as customers increasingly prefer to buy software as a service, delivered over the Internet from remote data centers.

Recognizing the importance of design is not new, certainly not at IBM. In the 1950s, Thomas J. Watson Jr., then the company’s chief executive, brought on Eliot Noyes, a distinguished architect and industrial designer, to guide a design program at IBM. And Noyes, in turn, tapped others including Paul Rand, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen in helping design everything from corporate buildings to the eight-bar corporate logo to the IBM Selectric typewriter with its golf-ball-shaped head.

At that time, and for many years, design meant creating eye-pleasing, functional products. Now design thinking has broader aims, as a faster, more productive way of organizing work: Look at problems first through the prism of users’ needs, research those needs with real people and then build prototype products quickly.

Defining problems more expansively is part of the design-thinking ethos. At a course in New York recently, a group of IBM managers were given pads and felt-tip pens and told to sketch designs for “the thing that holds flowers on a table” in two minutes. The results, predictably, were vases of different sizes and shapes.

Next, they were given two minutes to design “a better way for people to enjoy flowers in their home.” In Round 2, the ideas included wall placements, a rotating flower pot run by solar power and a software app for displaying images of flowers on a home TV screen.

Read the entire story here.

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North Korea + Oil = Saudi Arabia

Most of us in the West — myself included — take our rights and freedoms very much for granted. This is a mistake. We should celebrate every day. And here’s a stark reminder from the Middle East. The latest collection of royal decrees from the rulers of Saudi Arabia now declare that atheists are terrorists.

At some point in our future I still have to believe that the majority of humanity will come to realize that morality, compassion, altruism, kindness are basic human traits — they come to be despite religion, not because of it. At that point, perhaps, more nations will remove the shackles of religious dogma that constrain their citizens and join in the celebration of truly secular and global human rights: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to think, freedom to dance, freedom to drive, freedom to joke, freedom to be spiritual but not religious. And, of course those who desire to still believe in whatever they wish, should be free to do so.

From the Independent:

Saudi Arabia has introduced a series of new laws which define atheists as terrorists, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

In a string of royal decrees and an overarching new piece of legislation to deal with terrorism generally, the Saudi King Abdullah has clamped down on all forms of political dissent and protests that could “harm public order”.

The new laws have largely been brought in to combat the growing number of Saudis travelling to take part in the civil war in Syria, who have previously returned with newfound training and ideas about overthrowing the monarchy.

To that end, King Abdullah issued Royal Decree 44, which criminalises “participating in hostilities outside the kingdom” with prison sentences of between three and 20 years, Human Rights Watch said.

Yet last month further regulations were issued by the Saudi interior ministry, identifying a broad list of groups which the government considers to be terrorist organisations – including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Article one of the new provisions defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based”.

Read the entire article here.

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Celebrating 10 Years of Blogging

On this day in 2006, I began my journey into the blogsphere. What an anachronism that must seem to the many people who communicate in micro-burst-speak — 21st century equivalents of morse code, such as Twitter, WhatsApp and SnapChat. [If only my readers knew that I also write using a fountain pen with real ink!]

Much has changed in the intervening years — wilder climate, ubiquitous social media, Uber, online shaming, selfies. Much has also — sadly — remained the same: vacuous politicians with no policies, gun violence, terrorism, rich getting richer, bigotry and racism, gender inequality. The good news is that the progress of science marches on, so there is (some) hope for humanity amid all the turmoil.

Google-analytics-2Jan2016

Over the last decade I’ve connected my blog to a growing readership around the globe. And, while I may only have one or two readers in the 20 lowest ranked territories, according to Google Analytics, I thank each and every one of you — and the Tubes of the Internets — for allowing my thoughts and digital pen into your home.

Image courtesy of Google Analytics.

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See, Earth is at the Center of the Cosmos

A single image of the entire universe from 2012 has been collecting lots of attention recently. Not only is it beautiful, it shows the Earth and our solar system clearly in the correct location — at the rightful center!

Some seem to be using this to claim that the circa 2,000 year old, geo-centric view of the cosmos must be right.

Observable_universe_logarithmic_illustration

Well, sorry creationists, flat-earthers, and followers of Ptolemy, this gorgeous image is a logarithmic illustration.

Image: Artist’s logarithmic scale conception of the observable universe with the Solar System at the center, inner and outer planets, Kuiper belt, Oort cloud, Alpha Centauri, Perseus Arm, Milky Way galaxy, Andromeda galaxy, nearby galaxies, Cosmic Web, Cosmic microwave radiation and Big Bang’s invisible plasma on the edge. Courtesy: Pablo Carlos Budassi / Wikipedia.

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PhotoMash: A Blind Girl Sees; A Sighted Man is Blind

Today’s juxtaposition of images and stories comes courtesy of the Independent, from December 15, 2015. One is literally blind, the other figuratively.

The girl on the left is a 14-year old from Malawi. Her name is Rose. As a result of severe eye cataracts she was blind since birth. A recent operation restored her sight.

The man on the right can see, and according to his doctors is in excellent health. But he remains blind to all around, except his own reflection.

Photomash-Blind-versus-Blind

Images courtesy of Independent, UK.

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New Year. New Look

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a few subtle changes to the blog. While the focus remains the same, I’ve updated the look in keeping with a fresh new year — more responsive layout, improved performance, easier to browse and find content, and updated typography.

I hope this is more pleasing to your eye and more efficient for your browser whether you’re chained to a desk or on the move. Please drop me a line if you have any feedback. Thanks and Happy New Year!

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On the Joys of Not Being Twenty Again

I’m not twenty, and am constantly reminded that I’m not — both from internal alerts and external messages. Would I like to be younger? Of course. But it certainly comes at a price. So, after reading the exploits of a 20-something forced to live without her smartphone for a week, I realize it’s not all that bad being a cranky old luddite.

I hope that the ordeal, excerpted below, is tongue-very-much-in-cheek but I suspect it’s not: constant status refreshes, morning selfies, instant content gratification, nano-scale attention span, over-stimulation, life-stream documentation, peer ranking, group-think, interrupted interruptions. Thus, I realize I’m rather content not to be twenty after all.

From the Telegraph:

I have a confession to make: I am addicted to my smartphone. I use it as an alarm clock, map, notepad, mirror and camera.

I spend far too much time on Twitter and Instagram and have this week realised I have a nervous tick where I repeatedly unlock my smartphone.

And because of my phone’s many apps which organise my life and help me navigate the world, like many people my age, I am quite literally lost without it.

I am constantly told off by friends and family for using my phone during conversations, and I recently found out (to my horror) that I have taken over 5,000 selfies.

So when my phone broke I seized the opportunity to spend an entire week without it, and kept a diary each day.

Day One: Thursday

Frazzled, I reached to my bedside table, so I could take a morning selfie and send it to my friends.

Realising why that could not happen, my hand and my heart both felt empty. I knew at this point it was going to be a long week.

Day Two: Friday

I basked in the fact my colleagues could not contact me – and if I did not reply to their emails straight away it would not be the end of the world.

I then took the train home to see my parents outside London.

I couldn’t text my mother about any delays which may have happened (they didn’t), and she couldn’t tell me if she was going to be late to the station (she wasn’t). The lack of phone did nothing but make me feel anxious and prevent me from being able to tweet about the irritating children screaming on the train.

Day Three: Saturday

It is a bit weird feeling completely cut off from the outside world; I am not chained to my computer like I am at work and I am not allowed to constantly be on my laptop like a teen hacker.

It was nice though – a real detox. We went on a walk with our spaniel in the countryside near the Chiltern Hills. I had to properly talk to everyone, instead of constantly refreshing Twitter, which was novel.

I do feel like my attention span is improving every day, but I equally feel anchorless and lost without having any way of contacting anyone, or documenting my life.

….

Day Seven: Wednesday

My attention span and patience have grown somewhat, and I have noticed I daydream and have thoughts independent of Twitter far more often than usual.

Read the entire account here.

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