Category Archives: Technology

All Rivers Lead to the Ocean

All rivers lead to the ocean. All roads lead to Rome. One tree, many branches. There are a number of phrases and idioms with a message that “we’re all connected” in some way. Last summer, I posted a paper (in a series of posts) I wrote that included guidance from many of the world’s religions by way of quotes on a variety of topics. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a post at Lifehacker that I wish I had the time to have written.

The author takes seven lessons from world religions and then finds evidence for those lessons in a given religion’s teachings. I should say, it’s not clear to me whether the author worked forwards (come up with a lesson and then find evidence for that lesson in the text) or backwards (read the religious texts and then conclude there are similarities), but regardless, the quotes from the religious texts do seem to show similarities.

The seven lessons:

  1. The Golden Rule
  2. Work for the happiness of others, especially the poor/unfortunate
  3. Focus on the present
  4. Aim for achievements, not money
  5. Interact with the community
  6. Take responsibility for your actions
  7. Know yourself (make up your own mind)

The author’s parting quote is a succinct piece of advice when it comes to religion:

Stay curious and keep questioning—but also don’t discount the wisdom of the ages.

~

As we get further and further connected through technology, I wonder if we’re actually become further disconnected from ourselves and each other. There are absolutely advantages to being able to reach someone with the swipe of a thumb or the click of a finger, but as a couple of the above lessons seem to indicate, that can make it harder to focus on the present or to know one’s self. If we’re always reaching out and never taking the time to look within, it can certainly make it harder to have a developed sense of self.

Reading my words or someone else’s words likely won’t convince you to “go within.” It has to be a decision you make on your own. A switch inside of you that decides… it’s time. My wish for you: that time is sooner rather than later.

The Problem with Big Data: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

I’ve used the subtitle in a previous post and I think the application to the content of this post also makes it worthwhile to use again. I was reading a post from Tim Ferriss the other day and it made me think of statistics. The post is about alternative medicine, but understanding that isn’t entirely necessary for the point I’m making. Here’s some context:

Imagine you catch a cold or get the flu. It’s going to get worse and worse, then better and better until you are back to normal. The severity of symptoms, as is true with many injuries, will probably look something like a bell curve.

The bottom flat line, representing normalcy, is the mean. When are you most likely to try the quackiest shit you can get your hands on? That miracle duck extract Aunt Susie swears by? The crystals your roommate uses to open his heart chakra? Naturally, when your symptoms are the worst and nothing seems to help. This is the very top of the bell curve, at the peak of the roller coaster before you head back down. Naturally heading back down is regression toward the mean.

If you are a fallible human, as we all are, you might misattribute getting better to the duck extract, but it was just coincidental timing.

The body had healed itself, as could be predicted from the bell curve–like timeline of symptoms. Mistaking correlation for causation is very common, even among smart people.

And the important part of the quote [Emphasis Added]:

In the world of “big data,” this mistake will become even more common, particularly if researchers seek to “let the data speak for themselves” rather than test hypotheses.

Spurious connections galore–that’s what the data will say, among other things.  Caveat emptor.

This analogy reminded me of the first time I learned about correlation and causation in my first psychology class as an undergraduate. It had to do with ice cream, hot summer days, and swimming pools. In fact, here’s a quick summary from wiki:

An example of a spurious relationship can be illuminated by examining a city’s ice cream sales. These sales are highest when the rate of drownings in city swimming pools is highest. To allege that ice cream sales cause drowning, or vice-versa, would be to imply a spurious relationship between the two. In reality, a heat wave may have caused both. The heat wave is an example of a hidden or unseen variable, also known as a confounding variable.

Getting back to what Ferriss was saying near the end of his quote: as “Big Data” grows in popularity (and use), there may be an increased likelihood of making errors in the form of spurious relationships. One way to mitigate this error is education. That is, if the people who are handling Big Data know and understand things like correlation vs. causation and spurious relationships, these errors may be less likely to occur.

I suppose it’s also possible that some, knowing about these kinds of errors and how little the average person might know when it comes to statistics, could maliciously report statistics based on numbers. I’d like to think that people aren’t doing this and it just has more to do with confirmation bias.

Regardless, one way to guard against this inaccurate reporting would be to use hypotheses. That is, before you look at the data, make a prediction about what you’ll find in the data. It’s certainly not going to solve all the issues, but it’ll go a long way towards doing so.

To Tech or Not To Tech: Hiking the Appalachian Trail

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been 1 month since my last post. It feels like the last time I wrote something was ages ago. In March, I said that I intended on writing something once a week, but I suppose having an infant, moving, and preparing to start a new job have made that a little harder than I imagined. Nonetheless, I stole away some time today to write about technology and the Appalachian Trail (AT).

A few summers ago (actually, now that I think about it, it was 6 years ago), I had the good fortune to spend some time hiking on the Appalachian Trail. It was my first time on an extended hike and I really enjoyed it. While on the hike, I learned that the trail spans 14 states including the beginning/end in Maine/Georgia. Many folks try to hike the whole thing in a summer. Lots succeed, but many more give up. When I hiked part of the AT in 2008, technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today (obviously), but I was wondering how I might want to approach this subject when I decide to hike the AT again.

This thought was sparked by a post in Scientific American bemoaning the use of technology on the trail. I can see where she’s coming from — for sure. Most people decide to go into nature to get away from technology. She also makes some good points as to how technology can help in an emergency (read: bear eats pack).

I think if I were to hike the AT tomorrow, I might bring along a MacBook Air — for the sole purpose of writing. That is, I’d intend to do like David Roberts did and take a hiatus from social media (which for me, mainly means Twitter). I say intend because I’ve learned that making hard-and-fast rules can sometimes make things more difficult to uphold. I suppose I could not get some sort of data plan and therefore it would be quite difficult to check things like Twitter.

When I do decide to hike the whole of the AT (sometime in the next 30 years), our relationship to technology may be very different. Maybe Google Glass (or an iteration thereof) might be more user-friendly. Maybe it’ll be ingrained in the way we live our days like smartphones have become. Maybe there’ll be something after Google Glass and something beyond the impending smartwatches. Regardless of how technology evolves, we’ll always be left with the choice: to tech or not to tech.

How to Solve the Password Problem: Teach Kids When They’re Young

I came across an article a few days ago that explained how to teach humans to remember really complex passwords. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think that there’s an important piece to the solution to helping humans remember really complex passwords: habit.

When we first started using computers, coming up with a super-difficult password wasn’t necessary as we were usually just trying to keep our stuff protected from our family members. Then, it was trying to keep things protected from our co-workers. Slowly, that grew and grew until now, someone (or something!) on the other side of the planet can figure out your password and hack into your online accounts.

I wonder, if we were taught how to come up with complex passwords when we were younger, would there still be such a high percentage of people using easy-to-crack passwords? That is, if we only knew passwords to be in the form of “passphrases,” would someone still try to use a word as their password? While there would still probably be some, my guess is that the percentage would drop.

So, how do we teach our kids to use smarter passwords? Well, assuming that kids at some point are still taught how to type in school, I see this as the perfect opportunity to also teach them about how to use passphrases for accounts. Assuming that students will have to logon to a computer to use the program that teaches them how to type, this is the best time to imprint the habit of using an effective password.

Of course, this won’t solve the problem of all the people out there today who still use “password” or “1234password” for their password, but it will help to correct problem by not adding more people to the number of people who use poor password habits.

~

Extending this idea, there may still be some adults or teens out there who are still learning how to type. In these cases, we could have the software that is teaching them how to type also teach them about good password habits. If the adults are learning how to type in some sort of class, this could also be a good place to teach them about good password habits.

How Smartphones Can Lead to Better Parents

Over three years ago, I wrote a post about cell phone etiquette. At the time I wrote that, I wouldn’t have guessed that three years later, I’d be considering the possibility that smartphones could actually lead to better parents.

But that’s exactly what this post is about.

The stereotype goes that many parents will bring their children to the park (and/or some activity) and upon arriving, they shoo away their children only to peer down at their cell phone. Some folks do this while out to dinner with friends (even though they don’t have kids, see here). Many will cringe upon seeing parents sitting on the bench enwrapped in the goings on of their cell phone. Farhad Manjoo, however, points out how smartphones can actually make for more available parents [Emphasis Added]:

But we rarely consider how, by liberating us from the office, smartphones have greatly expanded the opportunity for certain kinds of workers to increase their involvement in their children’s lives. Because you can work from anywhere thanks to your phone, you can be present and at least partly attentive to your children in scenarios where, in the past, you’d have had to be totally absent. Even though my son had to yell for my attention once when I was fixed to my phone, if I didn’t have that phone, I would almost certainly not have been able to be with him that day — or at any one of numerous school events or extracurricular activities. I would have been in an office. And he would have been with a caretaker.

Stop and consider that for a moment: having a smartphone can actually make you more available as a parent. Now, this isn’t a commercial for smartphones, but it’s certainly something that should give you pause for consideration. I know it did for me when I read it. This idea put forth from Manjoo is exactly the kind of thing that I’m talking about when I say putting a new perspective on things. Someone who is so focused on how smartphones are bad for parents and how they keep parents from their children wouldn’t be able to see the possibility that for a small population, having a smartphone can actually allow a parent to be away from the office and with their children.

This idea isn’t meant to invalidate the idea that smartphones are changing the relationship we have with our children, but the idea that smartphones are allowing us to be with our children more is, to be hyperbolic for a moment, paradigm-altering. A key step to being a better parent is being able to be with your children. So, if smartphones can get us out of the office and next to our kids, isn’t that an important step?

~

There still might be some of you out there that unequivocally think we shouldn’t be on our phones when we’re with our kids and that’s okay, but I hope that you’ll at least consider (reflect, think about, ponder, etc.) the possibility that the opposite may be true. It’ll put you one step closer to defending against the confirmation bias.

The Problem With Facebook: Young People Really Are Social Networking Elsewhere

Remember yesterday when I was talking about Facebook’s “young person” problem? It turns out, there’s actually data to back this up. It turns out, there was actually an article in TIME that I didn’t realize had data when I was writing my post yesterday:

According to iStrategy, Facebook has 4,292,080 fewer high-school aged users and 6,948,848 college-aged users than it did in 2011.

That amounts to more than 11 million users gone in the past 3 years. While Facebook has more than 1 billion people, so 11 million might not seem like much, but is it a trend? That is, should this be something that the folks over at Facebook should be worried about. Well, there’s a handy graphic that can also be found in the TIME article, (but it comes from iStrategy):

Two of the cells I want to draw your attention to are already conveniently highlighted in red: the ages 13-17 and 18-24. If you’ll notice, both of these age groups are experiencing negative growth. Of particular noteworthiness is the 13-17 age group, which is down 25% over the last 3 years. Again, as I said earlier, Facebook’s user base is rather large right now, so it might not have that big of an effect anytime soon, but it is something to watch out for.

In the article, the author also points out that part of the reason people advertise with Facebook isn’t necessarily for the volume of its users, but because of all the information that it has on its users making microtargeting that much more effective. Maybe this information is enough to overcome the decline in new users, who knows. As I said yesterday, if I were part of Facebook’s team, I would be worried about the continued decline in my user base — especially because it’s the younger folks who are leaving. Why?

Pretty soon, these young folks are going to be reaching those prime marketing age groups (18-34) and if they’re already not using Facebook, that could be bad news. In fact, if they’re not using Facebook, they’re probably using some other social network to communicate and that is where the marketing dollars are going to go. I suppose only time will tell.

The Problem With Facebook: Is It Really Out of Room to Grow?

I rarely read the front page of YouTube, but today when I typed in YouTube to my address bar (with the intention of finding some music to listen to while I worked), one of the videos I saw on the front page was titled “The Problem With Facebook.” Truth be told, I thought it was a video by MinutePhysics and thought that there was going to be some scientific explanation of Facebook’s problems, but it turns out the video was by 2veritasium. (I guess MinutePhysics may have liked the video, so that’s why I saw their name or maybe they had just come out with another video, who knows.)

Anyway, if you have Facebook (or had Facebook) or know anything about Facebook, I’d say it’s worth the 6 and a half minutes to watch it:

I’m not sure what the fellow’s name is, but it reminds me of when George Takei went on a bit of a rant about Facebook not letting him reach all of his fans on Facebook. At the time, I think I still had a Facebook profile (rather than the page I have now) and I thought that was strange that your posts weren’t reaching all of your friends — by design.

The fellow in this video makes that same point, but he does it in a more thorough way than I remember Takei doing it (which is not to say Takei didn’t do it), and he also juxtaposes Facebook with YouTube. He makes a rather compelling argument, but something I don’t think he highlights is that he kind of has a vested interest in YouTube being more successful — his videos are hosted on YouTube! Now, this doesn’t really take anything away from the argument — it’s sound — but I think it’s worth noting.

Throughout the video, he talks about the incentives. I wonder what Michael Sandel would say about the incentives in this situation. Would he say that the incentives have been perverted? It’s tough to say because Facebook is trying to make money and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I wonder if maybe they’ve strayed a bit too far from the original purpose of the site.

There’s one last thing I want to highlight from the video — in part — because it dovetails nicely with something that I’ve been trumpeting on here for awhile. He argues that Facebook has already maxed out, with regard to the amount of time people spend on the site per day (approximately 30 minutes) and that Facebook has already reached just about everyone in the developing world. When it comes to online video, however, he argues that there is still lots of room to grow based on the fact that people still don’t watch that much of it when compared to television. I might not put it in those words exactly, but I think he’s on the right track.

If even the President of the United States knows that Facebook is becoming or already is unpopular with young folks, I have to think that the smart people over at Facebook know this, too. As they’ve got a fiduciary duty to their shareholders, I’m sure they’ve been hard at work trying to figure out just how they’re going to capture more value — translation: how they are going to make more money.

Who knows… maybe Facebook will soon go the way of the social networks that have gone before it. Remember MySpace?