Is every "solved" problem an opportunity?
|It was 15 years ago that Scott Rosenberg blogged about a new search engine called Google. (He recalled it in this blog post.) He point back then was that search was not yet a solved problem, as many thought at the time, and that this new Google could advance the field. That much seems clear now. But the nature of prescient articles: They seem obvious once the world catches up.
This got me to thinking about other problems that might seem solved now, but could actually use a transformational improvement. Some ideas:
1) Spinach cleaner. We have this centrifuge of a sieve that that dries lettuce or spinach in a jiffy. That solves the drying problem, but not the cleaning bottleneck. You still have to wash it leaf by leaf. I make this Chinese spinach salad that scrunches up massive amounts of green stuff and bathes it in a ginger, sesame, soy sauce. It takes me almost a half hour to clean the lettuce. Even then, my wife makes a face as she eats it and says, "a little grit."
2) Rear-view mirrors. There has to be an solution for to blind spots, doesn't there? (I guess this one won't matter for too many years, because humans might not be long for driving these machines.)
3) Touch screens. At some point, we're going to communicate effortlessly with these machines, and our kids or grandchildren will say: Let me get this straight. You actually wiped your greasy fingers on screens (and couldn't see them in sunlight)?!
I might think of more through the day. It's a hot one here in Montclair...
Love of vinyl, part 4
|Here's a brew of desire, relief or regret that many modern music lovers may never experience. It comes when you're sitting comfortably, enjoying a record album. As the fourth or fifth song ends, you hope that there's just one more song on the side. You might even pray for it. Because if it's over, it spells the end of a trance and the need to climb out of the chair and turn over the record, or worse, find another one equally good.
I just went through that process while listening to The Band's concert album, Rock of Ages
(which I bought 40 years ago this coming winter). Life is a Carnival
was finishing, and I was hoping for an encore. No such luck. Since it's Fourth of July, I'll mention in passing that The Band makes great listening for this national holiday (even though most of the members came from Canada). They have songs about the American experience, many of them about working, as soldiers (Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
), farmers (King Harvest
), even musicians (Stage Fright
|While I'm on music, a big change in my digital life. I've grown tired of the music collection I've amassed on iTunes. There are about 5,000 songs there, but I've heard my favorites way too often. So I've switched to a Slacker subscription ($10/month). This gives me streaming and downloads. It introduces me to new music, and adds welcome surprise. It's as if I've gotten a brand new music collection. Its headquarters is my phone, with auxiliary outlets in my tablet and laptop.
Fourteen years ago, while in Paris, I predicted this development. It came a little later than I expected. Here's the BusinessWeek online article
My wife makes fun of me for all the machines I carry on my walks around Paris. I often take off from home with a Walkman hitched to my belt and a cell phone in my pocket. And I can always tell when the phone is ringing because it produces a sandstorm of interference on the Walkman.
This makes for problems. The other week I was crossing the Champs Elysees when I heard the telltale interference on the Walkman. I reached toward my pocket and knocked the radio off my belt. It landed with a thud and the batteries fell out. With the phone still ringing, I scooped up the radio and one battery. Then I hustled after the other, which was rolling downhill toward the Tuileries Gardens. The light changed, and cars honked as I hurried across the wide boulevard cradling the radio like a wounded bird. Serves you right, my wife would have said.
Then the key point: ...I won't be carrying around all these machines too much longer. These devices, like so many others, are converging into one...As cellular handsets develop into Web-phones and data connection speeds grow faster, people will be able to tune into Internet radio on their cell phones (if that's what we're still calling them), and the connection will be in stereo.
One problem with my predictions was the timing. I figured these services would debut in the early years of the 2000s. For most users, it took another decade. And instead of paying for music on the phone bill, as I predicted (and the phone companies fervently hoped), I'm paying my Slacker bill through iTunes--a development that would have taken some explaining back in '99.
One other prediction that turned out to be premature: ...With time, though, audio buffs will be able to call up songs using voice commands, and the phone will download an entire CD while it's playing the bars of the first song. Needless to say, if the music industry is going to survive in cyberspace, you'll be using your voice commands not only to order the music, but also to pay for it....
Datamining discussion with Brown Political Review
|I had a Skype chat on Friday with Ben Wofford, co-editor in chief of the Brown Political Review. This one focused more on government datamining. (The AlJazeera one earlier in the week looked at tech companies.) If I seem a bit familiar with Ben, he's a close friend of the family.
AlJazeera: Google as Big Brother
Yesterday I learned about Dataium.
It's a company that aggregates Web surfing data and provides it to auto dealers so that they can predict the preferences of customers, and perhaps even set the appropriate price for each one. I heard about this from Ashkan Soltani
, an independent data researcher who was discussing data with me on an AlJezeera show, The Stream
Maybe I'm jaded, but I'm not too bothered that an auto dealer would seek out information about customers and tailor pitches and prices for them. Dealers have always discriminated. That's what they do. They focus on a customer's clothes and jewelry. They note which people are impressed by sound systems or leather upholstery, and they figure that they'll pay more for such things. Good car dealers read humans. They observe and they deal. And now they use data. Doesn't surprise me too much.
That was the pattern during our half-hour show. Ashkan and Birgitta Jonsdottir
, a Pirate Party MP from Iceland, objected to the datamining that big companies like Google and Facebook carry out. I was less bothered.
Birgitta, for example, complains that Google customizes results for what a specific user is most likely to be interested in. A cook who looks for dressing, for example, might see salad dressings among the top results, while a deer hunter might see a link about skinning a carcass. That doesn't bother me. But Birgitta and Ashkan fear that the big data companies are putting blinders on us, giving us little perspective outside of our own spheres.
I agree that we find ourselves in self-reinforcing information ghettos. But most of the responsibility is ours. We choose our Facebook friends, and they tend to link to a bunch of stories we agree with. Many of us avoid blogs and channels that challenge our views. If we wanted to broaden our horizons, we could change. It's not Google's fault.
Ashkan says that instead of tracking our behavior, companies might simply ask us for our preferences. But I'd actually rather have Amazon figure me out than answer a survey. There might be people with similar tastes who enjoy a book in a category I wouldn't know in advance. Amazon, for example, lined me up with John Vaillant's The Tiger
, one of the best books I've read in recent years. But I wouldn't have clicked Tigers or Siberia in a list of preferences.
My other point is that information workers, including journalists, need a vibrant advertising industry to support them (us). The datamining advertisers blunder in many ways. They hide what they're doing, they cross lines, they raise suspicions and fears. But I want them to figure out how to do it right, and to succeed.
Incidentally, a tip from Ashkan. For privacy and security online, he suggests eliminating flash from your computer.
My answers about government datamining
|An Italian journalist sent me questions the other day about the government datamining we've been learning about of late. I answered her questions. Since maybe only one of these sentences will turn up in her article, and in Italian, I figured I might as well blog our exchange:
Q: Do you believe that data mining is necessary to keep the US safe? What occured in Boston was just the last of a series of attacks and I have read that American public opinion is divided right now between the ones who favour safety and those who defend privacy.
A: Some degree of data mining is inevitable for a modern state to protect itself, not only from terrorists, but also from crime, traffic and industrial accidents and catastrophic weather. The question is not whether we sacrifice our privacy for safety, but instead how much the government can see, what the limits are and how they are enforced. Right now, it seems as though the government reserves the right to define all those limits for itself. It asks us to trust its judgment. I think the limits will have to be spelled out, and the citizens will demand and deserve some sort of oversight over these operations, perhaps by a congressional committee (even though confidence in Congress is at all-time lows).
The other important point is what the data can be used for, and what conclusions can be drawn from it. Imagine, for example, that in their hunt for terrorists dataminers find possible evidence of tax fraud, or perhaps a ring of pedophiles. Can we expect them to turn a blind eye to it? I don't think so. In that case, what begins as an invasion of privacy to protect the nation turns into a surveillance state.
Q: The Verizon and Prism scandals have definitely brought to light the fact that American citizens’ privacy cannot be taken for granted and is virtually non-existent. Do you think what is happening will help change the situation? I mean, will this monitoring of people’s private communication diminish or finish after the scandal or will it go on as usual?
A: In my book, The Numerati, I argue that data mining is pervasive, in government and industry, and will only grow. Privacy advocates are sure to put up a fight, as will a number of government regulators. But the trends favor datamining. Consider what most consumers in the world are interested in. Most of them want convenience and economic savings, a cleaner environment, less waste, and more safety. Data mining promises results in all of these areas.
I should add that the data economy is full of hype, and that many of the promises turn out to be exaggerations, or false. In my book, I argue that the most problematic area is in data mining for terrorism. Companies like Amazon and Google, after all, can study the behavior of billions of shoppers, while anti-terrorism data miners have very little behavioral data about terrorists.
Q: International web users are also involved and I myself may be under surveillance after sending these emails to you…. Some people willingly publish personal data on social networks, others do not realize the dangers. What is your advice to internet users? Will people become warier when using the web after this datagate?
I think people will grow increasingly sophisticated about their data, and how to protect the secrets that matter to them. That said, it is remarkable how careless people are. A decade ago, hotels in the United States were among the biggest purveyors of pornography. Guests paid $10 or $20 to watch pornographic channels in their rooms. Who knows how many of them stopped to wonder, or to care, whether they were sharing their choices with the management of the hotel. That business has declined sharply, because travelers now bring laptops to their rooms, and look at Web sites. So now, their Web wanderings are available not only to the hotel, which runs the Wi-fi network, but also to a host of Web sites and their partners. These people may say in surveys that they care about privacy. And perhaps they do. But their appetites and desires lead them to share intimate details about their cravings with a broad range of companies and yes, the government.
My point is that while people claim to care about privacy, they often are not willing to forego convenience, pleasure, economic savings or the promise of security for it.
Cicadas: A week in the life of a 17 year old
|The 17-year cicadas have emerged from the ground in Montclair, NJ, and they're making a racket near my house. If you're me, you pedal slowly toward the noise. You see cicada exoskeletons piling up along the roads. You see them on trees and telephone poles. The noise grows louder. When you finally reach the noise--and it often seems elusive--you look up. At first, you don't see much. Then you notice the movement. It's hundreds of cicadas flying around in the top branches, mating.
They don't have much time. It might be a couple of weeks. They have to mate, lay eggs, and then die. And then the process begins anew, 16+ years underground, a week molting and growing new wings, and then a frenzy of mating up high.
You could imagine their short above-ground life as a week in the existence of a reckless 17-year-old human. Picture it. The kid learns how to drive, uses the wheels (or wings) to engage in a mating ritual, scores in the first day or two and then, sadly, drives off a cliff.
Another perspective on Spain
|Antonio Sanz Domingo, my biking compadre and friend of 47 years, put together a slide show of our two-wheeled romp through central Spain last month. The photo of me eating (It looks as through I'm dealing with a wobbly molar) is in the parador of Sigüenza, where we had given up on riding through the rain and were consoling ourselves with a feast.
My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
|Just a few words about my novel, The Boost, which Tor Books is publishing next year. In early 2011, when I finished Final Jeopardy, I was thinking more or less obsessively about the future of cognition. As I saw it (and see it), it was going to be a joint project of the peerless human brain and the machines that we create. And dramatic change was going to come a lot faster than many people suspected.
So I wrote a story. It takes place in 2072, but some of the crucial events--the broad deployment of cognitive implants--occurs decades earlier, in a world that doesn't look that different from the one we inhabit today. I won't go into all the details, but suffice to say that the development of this technology doesn't come from Silicon Valley.
In my story, almost everyone is "enhanced." All of the information machines in our lives are run out of the chip, or Boost, we carry in our heads. TVs, computers, credit cards, cameras, in short all of the hardware, is embedded in this tiny networked supercomputer. Those who don't have this technology are regarded as "wild." They're considered dangerous, in large part because they're harder to control. They're unpredictable. (It's a condition some might call "free.")
I'm writing this now because I just came across this interview with Michael Anissimov
, a blogger at Accelerated Future
. He discusses the enhanced brain. It's worth reading. A couple notable points. The brain has been highly optimized over some 7 million years to carry out the jobs to keep us alive: finding food, mating, spotting danger, etc. Chemicals that promise to boost performance are, and are likely to remain, extremely crude (and dangerous). In the next few decades, he believes, the path toward brain augmentation will come from advances in nano-manufacturing.
One likely side-effect to brain augmentation: Insanity. Short of that, "might include seizures, information overload, and possibly feelings of egomania or extreme alienation." (That is to say, modern life marches on....)
From sunshine to rain in Spain
|A couple years ago, I biked with a lifelong friend along a stretch of Spain's pilgrimmage route to Santiago de Compostela. (slideshow) The weather in Galicia, traditionally a rainy area, was pristine. We paid for that sunshine this year, as we rode the Route of El Cid, which extends from Burgos to Valencia. For the first couple of days, out of Burgos, it was fabulous. The roads were nearly empty, scenery beautiful, food great.
|South of Burgos, en route to Covarrubias
On the third day, we climbed to the castle of Gormaz
, which went back and forth between Muslim and Christians during the 9th and 10th centuries. There were warnings of rain in the weather report, but we forgot about them as we looked down from the castle.
|In a town called Berlanga de Duero, we stopped for a mid-morning cup of coffee--one of our rituals. Coming out of the cafe, we felt the first drop of rain. I won't bore you with details, but for the rest of the day, we suffered downpours and two hail storms. And what began as a joy ride through Soria turned into an increasingly frantic hunt for shelter, food and heat. By the next day, seeing gloomy weather forecasts, we pedalled to the town of Siguenza, where there's a train line, and returned to Madrid. We later took one more ride, in the only sunny part of Spain, along the Via Verde de la Jara route, in the province of Toledo. The slideshow (below) tracks our path from sunshine, to rain, to Toledo, and then back to Madrid.
I might mention that El Cid, whose route we were following, suffered many setbacks during his military career. At least a couple of them were more devastating than ours. So, like him, we will persevere, maybe in a year or two.
Flickr asks me to stop paying money
|A few years ago, I decided that to load all my photos to Google's Picasa. That would be my cloud repository. But then Google tied Picasa into Google+, and suddenly I had to figure out which "circles" I wanted to share with. I screwed up a few times and shared photos with large crowds of strangers. So I bagged the service and decided to pay Flickr $25 for a pro account. Flickr, as Mat Honan details in a Gizmodo post, used to be a cutting-edge social site in 2005, when it was sold to Yahoo. That began its slow descent into irrelevancy. I didn't care about that, though. I just wanted a place to store my photos.
Yesterday, the same day that Yahoo agreed to buy Tumblr for $1.1 billion, I received the strangest email from Flickr. The company virtually begged me to stop paying it money and to switch to its free ad-based service with a terabyte of storage. I obediently complied.
I should mention that Flickr's service of late has been dreadful. The links between Flickr and Apple's iPhoto are a bad joke. But I do manage to store my photos there, and starting today I'll be doing it for free. As Rob Hof notes
, the Tumblr acquisition is Yahoo's bid to wrest some social media traffic from Facebook. And the change to a free, virtually limitless Flickr is no doubt part of the same strategy. I have little doubt that Yahoo will start pushing me, the way Google did, to share my photos with my circles of friends.
And I'll push back, or withdraw. It's not that I don't want to share photos. I do. But only about 1% of them. Some of my reluctance has to do with privacy. My friends and family in some of the photos haven't agreed to be posted. The other issue is quality. Most of my photos are boring to everyone but me. Actually, probably half of them bore even me. I keep them simply as historical artifacts. So I want to pick and choose which ones I post. A few might go on Facebook, or on this blog. But the rest of them ascend into this great big shoebox in the sky. For now, it's Flickr.
|One of the first photos I uploaded to Flickr, back in 2005, when Flickr was hot. This one is from Paris, in 2002, just before we moved back. I took it with my first digital camera, a Sony that actually recorded photos on a mini CD. That baby, I figure, must be about 13 by now.
RT @marthagabriel: "It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated."
-- Alec Bourne #quote #goodmor…
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My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
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Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012
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"Corporations are People": an op-ed
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The coming privacy boom
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The appeal of virtual
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My next book: IBM's Jeopardy mission
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