Posts Tagged ‘using technology mindfully’

Avoid Illness by Making Your Body Resilient

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

It’s that time of year again. No, not just the holidays, but the time where it seems that everyone is becoming sick. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones that’s not [yet] been afflicted. So you’re avoiding making contact with people with symptoms – telling that coughing coworker to stay at home to spare the rest of your team. And you’re not touching those infested subway poles. And you wash your hands all the time, just to be safe. I call this mindset the contagion model, where a person becomes sick if they’re exposed to agents that contain infectious bacteria or viruses – people and objects included. While there’s a lot of truth to this way of thinking, I feel we rely too much on it. The contagion model is rendered moot by the resilience model, where one can avoid illness altogether by strengthening and conditioning their bodies in various means. This seemingly impossible feat results from developing a strong immune system and a stress buffer. Thus, even if a resilient individual is exposed to infectious pathogens, her body is able to resist and ward off the potential illness.

Although I’m not a doctor, I’ve mixed together a slew of information, from microbiology to stress research, with self-experimentation and introspection to develop this model. Here’s the kicker – as of this writing, I haven’t been sick since December 2005. That’s 6 years! At worst, I’d feel like I have something coming down which slightly bothers me for a day, and then it’s gone. Now, because I only have a single data point – myself – it’s not entirely clear what factors are more prominent to building resilience. Still, I have a bunch of ideas that I consider to be significant factors.

The body is more likely to succumb to illness when it is placed under stress. So it’s important to keep oneself in tip-top shape by eating well, being very physically active, and getting plenty of sleep. I should note two important things I had done in 2005, when my illness-free streak began: I stopped drinking soda and I began serious martial arts training. My body has felt amazingly better since. Likewise, pursuing meaningful or enjoyable activities (in both work and play) and being social go a long way keep us unstressed and consequently stave off illness. If this perspective sounds familiar, it’s because this is core and time-tested health advice, not to mention a central point of this blog. I believe the way we live on a day-to-day basis most profoundly prevents sickness.

Shocks to the body are bad – like going from the toasty indoors to the freezing winter outside – so it’s helpful to acclimate oneself to the new season. Every Fall the past few years, I’ve gradually exposed myself to the colder outside temperatures. I tend to keep the indoor temperature on the low side, like in the 60s. And participating in outdoor physical activities, like roller blading, means putting up with moderately unpleasant cold temperatures as the season carries on. By the time the days get nastily cold, my body has a new set point and tolerance – I never have to feel the intense blast of cold in the dead of winter because my body is already used to the moderate cold. Reducing the cold imbalances in the season means reducing the chance of a cold in your system.

We should embrace germs instead of fearing them. I’m vehemently against the common use of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers. Here’s why: not all bacteria are bad and we humans have evolved to coexist with many bacteria in mutually beneficial ways. There’s a trillion bacteria on our skin surface and most of them are either beneficial or don’t cause harm. The actual benefit is very interesting, because these typical skin bacteria often prevent the pathogenic bacteria from taking hold on the skin surface. Let this sink in – the bacteria that normally reside on our skin surface essentially give us a force field that protects us from infectious pathogens. Now what happens when we use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers that kill off everything? The skin becomes a clean slate and an open invitation to all bacteria – good and bad. Think about this the next time you go for the antibacterial product.

The immune system is like a muscle. It requires a consistent workout to maintain its strength. Like an atrophied bicep that can barely lift a thing, a coddled immune system offers little protection when it’s called to action. Our bodies are designed to be exposed to the elements. A minor infection here or there gives the immune system practice and information. It helps us develop immunity and preps our bodies for the big game when flu season comes around. Hence, we shouldn’t be afraid to get a little dirty sometimes.

As I mentioned, these are a few ideas that have come from a lot of experimenting and consideration of the way the human body works. I understand that it may be a bit unconventional, or perhaps blasphemous. But at the very least, I know that something is working. It’d be nice to have some more data points. Have a healthy and resilient winter!

Why I Ignore My Phone, and You Should Too

Monday, October 31st, 2011

As those who know me know, I’ve become pretty much impossible to get a hold of by nearly any means of instant communication. This might come as a shock, as it rides against the convention of our always on, always accessible culture. This isn’t a matter of disregard or a lack of consideration for others. It’s actually the opposite – by using these communication tools this way, I’m free to provide my full attention to the experience at hand, and the people I’m with.

We have so many technologies that allow us instant communication – phone calls, texting, emails, instant messages, and video chat. It’s not that I’ve stopped using them – in fact, I have access to all of them on my app-phone, a device that I almost always have with me. But I keep my phone on silent most of the time – it’s only allowed to get my attention when I’m expecting an important call or message. So for the most part, phone calls, text messages, and instant messages are used in a delayed response fashion (this goes doubly so for emails, where notifications are turned off altogether).

I do check on up on messages, but the interval varies immensely. If I’ve got some dead time while walking somewhere, or waiting for code to compile at work, or actually using my communication device to do some light reading, I’ll take a look and triage or reply to messages. But if I’m out doing stuff like skating around the city or spending time with friends, or if I’m in the middle of a coding spree at work, it could be hours before I check on messages.

Now this seems like quite a bit of inconvenience, for me in that I may miss important or urgent messages, and for others that are trying to reach me. But there’s two major points that ameliorate this concern. The first is that messages are hardly as urgent as they seem – many of them can be replied to later. Likewise, many seemingly urgent messages are artificially urgent, often due to a lack of foresight in planning. For many folks I interact with, this isn’t a problem [anymore] because they know to mention things to me early and not at the last minute if they wish to get a response. I find that this actually helps to make everyone’s plans more consistent.

The second and more outstanding point is that by ignoring my phone, I’m allowed to achieve flow, a mental state of intense focus, efficiency, and enjoyability. This is something we induced constantly in karate class, where we took the time to meditate at the beginning of every class. This served to put us in a mindset where nothing else mattered in the world outside of the dojo: any concern or problem was irrelevant and the training before us was the only thing we were to have in mind. In a pragmatic sense, this held very true, and this intense focus was necessary to push our minds and bodies to new levels. At the end of our training sessions, we meditated once more to  prep our minds to return to the real world. This tenet in karate to train only with an absolutely focused mind applies to most other aspects of life – when engaged work, play, learning, and with other people. I experience an enormous sense of liberation when I’m in such a state of mind – that there’s only one thing that I have concentrate on.

Fittingly, I feel most connected with the experience at hand when I’m disconnected from everything else – the benefits are incredible: At work, it permits me to engineer a solution to some complex and mentally demanding problem. When reading, it allows my mind to drift into that of the author, where our ideas mingle to form new ones. When writing, it means i can surface the months or years of experience and learning into a concise article, like this very one you’re reading.

Being inaccessible to others for the sake of the above examples seems to come off as a selfish act. But the application for flow applies when engaged with people because it imbues that one is completely accessible. At work, this means I can devote my full attention to answer a coworker’s question. When out roller blading, it means I can push my friends harder while minding the roads for hazards. When with friends and family, it means I can listen to their thoughts and ideas and make for a meaningful conversation. You can’t put a value on giving a person your full attention.

This manner of using [and ignoring] communication technology has come through a lot of mindful experimenting and observation. In the process, I’ve made plenty of mistakes and even offended a few people. But I’ve come out with a strong sense of how to make the best of these tools, gaining the ways to connect using new technologies while keeping intact the more sacred connections of here and now. I suggest trying your own experiment with this. Evaluate how you use phone or emails. You might find a life more focused on the things that matter most.

Embrace the World of Knowledge

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

I feel very fortunate to live in this ever evolving information age – that attaining knowledge has become so easy. There’s a story I love to share that really illuminates how amazing our time is. It is about encyclopedias.

When I was a kid growing up in the ’90s, I saw advertisements on TV for print encyclopedias. It was knowledge in a condensed form, but not condensed enough. It took up 3 bookshelves and cost quite a lot of money. In the late ’90s, when I was around twelve or thirteen years old, I had a personal computer in my house – something fairly rare among my peers. And with it, I had a CD with an encyclopedia on it. How amazing it was at this time, to have a boatload of knowledge in my home – I recall how awesome it was to look up information about the Hindenburg disaster, even watching video of the event itself.

Flash forward to today. There are three very interesting forces coming together. The first is the addition and organization of information. We have Wikipedia. We have YouTube. We have TED Talks. We have online video lectures. We have e-books. We have web access to newspapers archived into decades. We have Google to help us sort through all this. Nearly all of this is free. Almost none of this existed back in 1998. The second astonishing thing is the ease of access of this information in our modern world where high speed internet is common and, in metro areas, we have ubiquitous internet access between cell networks and wifi hotspots. The third is that the “computers” we use to access this information fit in our pockets. App phones are part of our daily carry. Tablets and netbooks are litter our travel bags and living rooms. There is little standing in the way to learning – neither time nor space.

I imagine the 14 year old version of me living today. He encounters something he’d like to know more about. So he pulls out his iPod Touch, connected to a free wifi hotspot, and finds what he’s looking for on Wikipedia. Then he finds a related video on YouTube. Then, when he gets home, he incorporates this knowledge into some project he’s working on. This kid, because he has such easy access to knowledge at an early age, has the potential to be smarter than anyone that has come before him.

In a sense, this principle applies to each of us, regardless of age. We are each presented the opportunity to become more knowledgeable today than anyone had just a few years ago. And as interesting as this world is today, I’m even more excited for what’s to come in the future. Imagine knowledge, in the pervasive and accessible form we have available now, multiplied across billions of individuals. Some amazing things are in store.

A Call for Less Photos

Saturday, July 30th, 2011

The cameras – they are everywhere. Photos are being snapped at a pretty wild rate, and are often shuttled online. We see something interesting – out comes the camera. We attend some event – big or small, a special occasion or a weekly happening – and we take photos. Lots of them.

But is preserving every moment in digital form so important? Oftentimes, we focus so much on capturing the moment, that we miss it entirely – or take away from the experience of it. Or we disrupt the conversation of two individuals forging a connection, to make a record of their shared experience.

The high capacity of the digital camera has given us the wonderful ability to take photos without concern of waste. But is this always so much a good thing? It can very easily scramble the signal-to-noise ratio. That is, photos are taken with less care. The truly inspirational ones are lost in the pile.

What if there was a limit like in the days of film rolls? What if you could only take a small number of photos at an event. Perhaps 4 at a party. Maybe a dozen on a trip. What would you capture? How much more interesting or meaningful would each of those photos be?

Something to think about. Happy shooting!

What’s Your Specialist Mind?

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

People’s brains are wired up in different ways. And while we like to think that we’re each unique in our own ways, there are actual patterns to the manners by which our minds are wired up and we see specific talents arise in individuals. A few examples include folks that can:

  • take apart and put together anything
  • play back music by ear
  • draw incredibly well
  • handle complex numbers in their heads
  • craft together anything
  • pick up languages with ease
  • be super coordinated in athletic activities
  • talk to anyone and pretty much get along with everybody

It seems that we’re genetically programmed to have a mind specialized in something or another and that this specialization is a more innate and natural ability. However, no mind can have it all – there’s always a tradeoff in ability. This should sound familiar – in a couple of  posts inspired by Temple Grandin’s TED Talk, I discussed how many specialist abilities, which I deemed technical abilities, come at the expense of natural social ability (this may very well relate to the autistic/asperger’s spectrum) and the technical talents can prove rather advantageous under certain situations. In the many months since reading Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures, I’ve noticed how her insights appear in scores of people. Particularly interesting are her classifications of specialist minds: the visual mind, the math/music (pattern) mind, and the verbal logic (language) mind (p. 28). These classifications are good but they are meant to describe autistic specialists rather than more normal people. Below are her classifications with my modified definitions*, based on what I’ve noticed of people of these minds.

Visual Mind

People with this type of mind think in pictures, like Temple Grandin, and are just very visual in general. They’re likely doodlers and tend to be artsy. Some can only visualize still images, though in great detail while others can effortlessly run full 3D virtual simulations in their heads. I’m confident that, at least in the case of the latter, they also have a strong spatial sense and are well coordinated in that regard.

Pattern Mind

Individuals with this mind find correlations between things and are very good at math. Much of what they see in the world is based on patterns and I would go as far to say that some may even think in mathematical terms. These folks are very good at putting together ideas and running logistical matters. Some of these individuals may also be very musically talented, or at least interested.

Language Mind

These are people of the word. They can easily pick up new languages and writing comes naturally to them. Unsurprisingly, they’re avid readers and seem very broadly interested in things like history and world matters.

Economic Mind

(This one isn’t part of Grandin’s original classifications so I’m not sure if it deserves its own category as it might fold into the pattern mind)

These individuals are hyper-rational and extremely good at evaluating cost-benefit scenarios with no involvement of emotions. They read and understand the fine print and are extremely difficult to dupe. Instead, they’re very good at taking advantage of any system to their benefit. Accountant-type folks fall into this category. Maybe lawyers too.

Mixed Specialties

While I described these minds as separate entities, it doesn’t have to be the case. There are people that have combinations of these types of minds and it may be the more prevalent case among specialist minds. For example, it appears that a combination of the visual and pattern minds make for some incredible engineering skills. The pattern mind allows one to put different things together while the visual mind allows one to see this in his head. This works well since much engineering requires one to build something virtually before doing so physically.

Social Mind

(not “specialist” but still special)

Grandin describes the other types of minds as specialist minds because they represent a more technical sophistication and because they seem less prevalent in the population. Still, I believe there’s much to like in having the social mind – and it’s likely a reason why it has evolved to become so prevalent. Individuals with this type of mind can naturally get along with others and are social butterflies. They thrive on interaction with others and are always up to head to the parties and clubs. They naturally understand social etiquette and are the ones that can help maintain social order with that human touch.

So yes, we are unique, but unique in particular ways that predict a medley of traits and abilities. Our minds are incredible technologies and it’s essential to understand the special power contained in each of our minds. With that, we can not only grow to embrace our talents and minimize the tradeoffs, but also understand the abilities in those all around us. More on that soon.

* In some ways, these mind classifications are somewhat arbitrary. The components of these specialist minds can be broken up and folded together in different ways. In fact, such classifications, such as the theory of multiple intelligences, have been discussed for decades. Still, I feel the organization provided by Grandin does a very good job of handling the correlations between different subspecialties.

How to be Superhuman

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

I’d like to tell you about my friend and skating brother, Ryan, an individual with seemingly superhuman powers. I first met Ryan in summer 2007 on Tuesday Night Skate, a group inline skating event where we fly through 20 miles of city streets each week. Needless to say, I was in the back of the pack that night, due to my limited experience with such distances and my low performance skates. But Ryan held the front with ease, despite wearing hockey skates with tiny wheels (these offer great maneuverability at the cost of top speed and momentum). He clearly had an incredible athletic ability; the extent of it is simply unreal.

For example, a few years ago, Ryan spontaneously entered a skating race. He wore his hockey skates as always and his attire consisted of a t-shirt of board shorts. Most everyone around him, speed skaters with racing level skates, was wearing spandex. Come the end of the race, Ryan placed fourth, beating out many folks that spend countless hours to be in tip-top racing form. This goes beyond skating. In the past year or two, Ryan participated in a bunch of running marathons and triathlons, seemingly just for kicks and to stay in better shape. He doesn’t train for these things. Despite this, he regularly beats out most of the competition, and sometimes wins outright.

How is it possible that he’s able to do this? Perhaps cause he’s young (a couple of years younger than I am), but even then, he’s quite unique among his peers. I’ve met many incredible individuals of all ages and while some have truly amazing athletic ability, none seem to be in the class Ryan sits in. Many folks claim that Ryan is simply innately talented – that he was born with superhuman abilities. I find this answer demeaning, to both Ryan and the claimer, and I’ll explain why below. If we step back and look at the big picture of Ryan’s life, we see the source of his talents.

Attitude

Ryan is driven for self-improvement and to better the world, learning at every opportunity. He sits front row center in his college classes, showing great interest in what his professors have to say (likewise, he connects with his professors to learn beyond the course material). His skating technique has changed over the years – it’s clear he always works to improve that. By the same token, Ryan shows great consideration outside of himself. One, he’s very friendly – it’s difficult for me to imagine a [sane] person that wouldn’t like this guy. There’s a strong aura about him. Two, he truly wants to better our world and does every bit to push for this, no matter how small. For example, he doesn’t waste a morsel of food and picks up litter in state parks. Three, he’s idealistic yet also down to earth. Like when he discusses ways to improve the grim condition of our planet, something he’s very passionate about, he speaks with such positivity while being completely aware of the true picture.

All or Nothing

Ryan is often pretty relaxed and easygoing – except when he’s not. When he does any physical activity, it’s full blast. When riding around campus, whether on skates or a bike, he always goes top speed. Although these trips are short, it does mean that Ryan’s muscles only understand one way react – 100%. Likewise, Ryan cranks it beyond our skating trips – he insists on doing a thorough job on any assignment whether for school or for work.

Connected to Nature

Ryan is quite in tune with nature. He has spent time in the Amazon, the villages of Peru, and the Andes. Likewise he’s worked summers in the Everglades and in Yosemite. He presently manages a nature preserve. Perhaps you’d think that Ryan is just a Tarzan type figure, but then there’s the fact that Ryan grew up in New York City and that this life surrounded by nature has been the case for only the past five years.

Disconnected from Distraction

Ryan stays away from many things that inject into our modern lives, particularly certain technologies. He spends little time using electronics (though does show curiosity in my gadgets, probably for the sake of learning). He does use email, but only as he needs it. He doesn’t use Facebook. And while Ryan does have a cell phone, you’d be lucky to get a hold of him on it. Likewise, Ryan doesn’t fixate on possessions or our modern standard of comfort. It is all about the experience for him – which means he doesn’t mind beat up gear. He makes it work, and it’s clear that he’s mindful about using technology.

Living Vitally

I consider this the most important factor. If there was someone that perfectly fit the ideals I put forth to live well, it’s Ryan. His eating habits are fantastic. His diet is mostly vegetarian, but by no means strict. It’s just that he loves fruits and vegetables, and often consumes them in a raw state. He’ll eat an apple, core and all, leaving just the stem. On his way to class, he’ll grab a zucchini or chunk of bread (whole grain, of course) and that’ll be his meal. Ryan doesn’t “exercise” but he’s more physically active than pretty much anyone you’d meet. Moving around is a core part of his life and not merely addendum to it. It helps immensely that he arranges his life around this: from biking around everywhere to digging up holes and such when at work at the nature preserve. Contrast this to most other folks, using cars or public transportation and sitting in offices all day (stuck inside and away from sunlight and fresh air). Moreover, Ryan has little unnecessary stress in his life. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t experience great stress, especially given his driven lifestyle. Still, this stress is self imposed and on his terms, so it likely bears few negative effects.

Really Superhuman?

Perhaps the perspective is relative, but I don’t think Ryan is really superhuman. More precisely, I feel the rest of us are just subhuman. Put simply – Ryan is maxing out human potential in its most natural and evolved way. In light of everything I discussed, there’s no surprise that Ryan is such an incredible human with seemingly unreal athletic ability. Ryan’s entire life is arranged to make this so and it’s not unintentional. I give him much credit for living in this manner – it’s a very difficult thing to do in our modern society. But knowing what makes for a person like Ryan is inspiring, because it means we have a realistic opportunity to be so much more than we are right now. We can use his methods, many the same as those I discuss on this blog, to live up to the human potential. Until then, no matter how hard we train for those athletic events, be ready to be outclassed by Ryan. We don’t stand a chance.

How Do YOU Use Your Free Time?

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

I keep involved in many things. I train in and teach karate. I train in capoeira. I read many, many books (most of which are non-fiction). I go to weekly inline skating events where I skate NYC streets alongside dozens of other skaters. I work with research professors. And of course I write these blog posts. Many of these activities have been mainstays for years. People ask where I get the time to do these things. I don’t get the time from anywhere. I make time by cutting out other things, like TV and video games. The fact is, in our modern society, with little exception, everyone has free time. It’s all about what you choose to do with it.

Consider this example: oftentimes, I’ll see an interesting and perhaps silly project on the internet, like someone making a sniper rifle out of Lego. What kills me is when others see this and immediately claim: oh, someone has too much time on their hands. They’re missing the point. Everyone has free time – the difference with the person that made the Lego sniper rifle is that he knows how to make interesting use of his free time.

By far, the biggest time killer (and an uninteresting one at that) for past generations, including my own, has been TV. It bothers me that the television is at the center of our modern life. Walk into most homes and you’ll find the TV in the living room with all the furniture arranged around it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because for decades watching TV was more or less the only feasible way to spend free time. This bleak, but appropriate, claim is one made by Clay Shirky in his stellar book, Cognitive Surplus.

This point sets a stark contrast to a world that’s deeply changed over the last decade. Shirky discusses how the emergence of the internet is fast destroying the one way media model established by the TV. As I mentioned in my previous post on The Beauty of ‘The Cloud’, it costs nothing more than time and effort for anyone with an internet connection to share her thoughts with the world (just as I do so with this blog). Also, the internet allows people of specific interests to find and engage each other. Meetup.com is a fantastic service the makes this super easy.

Aren’t we fortunate to live in such a world? There’s more opportunity than ever before to do interesting things. But each requires our time. So we must make our choices on what to make of our free time, a precious resource. It should be obvious that my suggestion is to cut out TV. Just get rid of it. Or hide it. It’s a magnet that keeps us in its trance and squanders away our greatest asset.

Another medium to consider dropping, which especially applies to my own generation, is video games. It’s something that I’ve cut out nearly completely. Those that have known me for at least a few years are probably shocked to hear this. I used to be so deeply obsessed with video games. It was all I talked about. It pains me a bit when I see other folks that do this. One, cause I used to be like this and two, because there’s so much more to life. I’m not saying video games are all bad or even mostly bad. They’re incredibly interesting and imaginative and throw us into creative worlds. They help with coordination and can even be a great social experience when friends are also involved. Still, it’s just one of many interesting things in life. And some of those other things are so much more enriching – mentally, socially, and professionally – than video games.

So go do something that sparks your mind and gets it to churn in different ways. Read a book on your commute. Do something engaging when hanging out with friends (don’t just watch a movie). Partake in a social physical activity. Build something cool. If you insist on remaining in front of a screen, then read some well written blogs. Watch a TED Talk. Write about what’s on your mind and share it. Enrich your life!

The Beauty of ‘The Cloud’

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Imagine having a second brain – one that’s not just limited to the knowledge and information from your own self, but also has the collective knowledge of the world. This is no dream – it is real, here, and now – thanks to the emergence of cloud computing.

I’ve been speaking obsessively about the cloud for well over two years now. Yet it seems that not everyone understands what this means (someone may not be so technologically adept or they may be mixed up with the broad and different usages of the term cloud). This became apparent a month ago when I stopped using AOL Instant Messenger, citing incompatibility with the cloud as my reason – which resulted in a lot of questions from friends. So let me provide a clear definition of what I see as the cloud.

In a nutshell, the cloud is about having information (in its many manifestations as discussed below) universally accessible. The internet and all our various computers (with net access) are the tools that make this possible.

Access to the Cloud

In developed parts of the world and especially in urban areas, the internet is ubiquitous. Most people of at least moderate wealth can afford to own an internet capable device that fits inside their pockets (and can carry it with them at all times). I’m talking about app phones like the iPhone and Android devices as well as the iPod Touch and the plethora of tablet computers coming this year. This is the future – try and find a teenager that isn’t carrying one of these things. From the dedicated data lines available on these devices to the WiFi hotspots all over the place, all these devices are connected to the internet and its arsenal of information.

Types of Information

First, we have the world’s collective knowledge. Something like Wikipedia is astonishing in its own right. When I was a kid, I was among the few of my peers to have a computer at home and be able load up an encyclopedia on CD. So I had instant access to mostly up-to-date information while in my household. For anyone that was older than I was, the hunt for such knowledge as a child involved a trip to the library or bookstore (excluding the minority of folks that had expensive dead-tree encyclopedias in their homes). Jump to today – you can look up something on Wikipedia in an instant with your app phone and from any urban area. What I find more exciting is that we’re way beyond just encyclopedias of knowledge. You can see incredible people discuss world-stirring ideas on TED or learn an academic subject for free through the Kahn Academy. The collective knowledge of the world spreads further since any individual can share his or her insights through blog posts (such as this one you’re reading right now).

Another form of information harnessed into the cloud is media. TV shows and movies are available via Hulu and Netflix streaming, while more personal videos are seen on YouTube. Online news, from large news presses to bloggers, is instant – in accessibility and coverage. Print news is old news. Cloud music has made strides over the years, from online “stations” like Shoutcast, Pandora, and Slacker Radio to more collection style like mSpot (lets you upload your music online and access it from an internet connected device) to Spotify (pay a monthly fee access the world’s music library on any internet capable device [not yet available in the US]). I’m most excited for the recent rise of ebooks, which will overtake purchases of all dead-tree books in just a couple of years, if not sooner. I’ve waited my whole life to carry a library in my pocket; an added bonus is that with certain ebook platforms (like Kindle), even my highlighting and notes are stored in the cloud and accessible on all my devices. Even video gaming has moved on to the cloud. Steam is pretty popular among PC gamers since one can simply purchase and install games without leaving their chair (similar to how most other software is now acquired). Even more intriguing is the service OnLive, which doesn’t require any installation as the game lives and runs on their servers (in the cloud). Their box serves simply to bridge their servers to your TV and controllers.

The last major form of information is the kind we use personally. Communications are one part of this. Web based email (do people outside of corporations use anything else?) is ubiquitous and has served as a cloud based dumping ground for thoughts and files for years. Instant messaging, besides being always accessible, like via app phones, also allows us to store our chat logs online (AIM wasn’t good about this so I stopped using it). It’s incredibly handy to be able to reference a digital conversation from earlier when out and about. The same applies for other personal records like contacts, voicemails, and bank records. Even our productivity has moved to the cloud. Services like Google Docs put an end to losing your work if your computer crashes and the hassle of carrying work around on flash drives. A real interesting item in the cloud is our location. My app phone transmits my location online where certain trustworthy individuals can find out where I am at any given time (this has proved helpful in streamlining my communications). Likewise, this bit of information is very useful when combined with other tools, like to find nearby restaurants.

Where the Beauty Lies

The amount of information available today is tremendous and it’s only growing. Likewise, every single one of these forms of information is instantly accessible. Knowledge, TV shows, reading material, emails, documents – it takes mere seconds to get to this stuff and from anywhere there’s internet. There’s no need to print out stuff. There’s no need to spend unnecessary effort remembering every little thing. I’ve offloaded quite a lot to the cloud – which allows my brain space to do more advanced things.

Some Potential for Disaster

Now of course there are risks inherent in all this. Ease of access for us also means others can potentially have that same ease of access to our information. It’s a tradeoff but there are plenty of safeguards in place, should we use them wisely. Likewise, we do have to trust all these cloud services to respect our information. Transparency in these policies is important and we should insist on it. Also, by using the cloud heavily as I do, one does become dependent on it. Losing access to it can spell trouble or at the very least might be unnerving (I admit that I feel strangely uncomfortable when riding on the subway, where the lack of internet cuts me off from my article feeds, streaming music, and chats). Still, most systems are pretty reliable and we should still be smart about things. For example, I often memorize driving directions and use my navigation unit more for backup guidance. Again, it’s all a tradeoff and I feel I’m gaining significantly more in taking what the cloud has to offer.

The Future is in The Cloud

The handiness of the cloud is expanding in so many ways. Information is but one tool we find essential in our daily lives; there are other tools that the cloud has reached out to. Web applications are among the most interesting of these. Programs live in the cloud and sometimes offer usefulness beyond their desktop counterparts. For example, the aforementioned service, Google Docs, brings the ability for multiple individuals to collaborate on a document in real time. More of what we use on the desktop will move to the cloud. Other paradigms will shift for the better. Installing and maintaining software will no longer be a burden of the user. Printing out stuff will become passé (if it isn’t already). Powerful computers for personal use will be a thing of the past (except for specialists that really need it). It’s no surprise that anemic devices such as app phones, iPads, and netbooks are wildly popular – they offload their need for power to the cloud, where there is neither idleness nor wasted CPU cycles. Isn’t that just beautiful?

What Technology Wants – History and Future of Technology

Friday, November 19th, 2010

click to go to Kevin Kelly's websiteIt’s rare to come across something that touches the very fabric of our existence in such profound ways – it’s mesmerizing. So it is the case with What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly. In one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read, Kevin Kelly weaves together thoughts on the journey of technology (which as a whole, he calls the technium) and ties it in with all other parts of life, the universe, and everything (quite literally). This is of course through a broad interpretation of the definition of technology, going beyond just gizmos – to inventions and knowledge. It’s quite similar to the a crucial perspective I take on this blog and hence I welcome this understanding. With this, Kelly connects technology with the very birth of the universe and the increasing complexity that has emerged from the universe itself – from simple hydrogen atoms to energy-dense microprocessors. He likens technology to a sort of unstoppable force and considers it another kingdom of life. As strange as that seems, it’s very plausible in my eyes. His incredible comparisons between technology and evolution fit well in presenting such arguments – these comparisons are so thoughtful that I felt my deep background in evolution was strengthened with his discussion (and there is no question that he blew away my understanding of technology).

Kelly reconciles two opposing concepts – ordained-ness and free will – in an a strangely convincing manner. He states that technology, to elaborate that it’s an unstoppable force, builds upon itself and that its agents (we humans) inevitably bring it to greater life. This is the basis for his explanation of why similar ideas and invention seem to appear simultaneously from different areas of our globe. He shows that such convergent “evolution” is very much the regular case in the technium as it is in the [other] kingdoms of life. At the same time, he assesses the free will of technology and goes down to the very level of the seeming free will that appears in the random noise of subatomic particles.

There is a practical element to Kelly’s discussion as well. Kelly provides a framework by which to consider technology – new and old – providing guidance as the world around us is increasingly transformed by technology. For example, because he believes that the emergence of any technology cannot be indefinitely thwarted, he presents some rules on how to approach any technology in a manner that beneficial for the global human community. He discusses such rules in the seemingly extreme case of the Amish. Interestingly, many groups of Amish are not quite the luddites we typically perceive them to be. Rather, they’re extremely mindful of the technology they use: they take care to consider the potential community problems arising from inventions and often experiment and observe with a small adoption – one can’t help but respect such mindfulness. (In fact, this discussion is so striking that I suggest that you check out Kevin Kelly’s blog post on it.)

There are a couple of points where Kelly is off. Well, not quite off, but rather he’s missing a level. For example, he states that advances in human communication – such as the inventions of language and writing – were the cause of our uniquely human power. Based on the research of folks I work with, these communication technologies were instead a consequence of a more precise cause of our rise to dominating the planet – solving the conflict of interest problem on larger scales thus facilitating greater level of human cooperation. This Human Uniqueness Theory that I work with does well to explain the Behavioral Modern Revolution of 40,000 years ago and the Neolithic revolution of 10,000 years ago, among our other technological revolutions that Kelly mentions. It’s understandable why one would assume that communication tools were the catalyst for human advancement, especially given how closely they relate to our uniquely human trick of cooperating on large scales to do incredible things. Still despite these minor details, Kelly’s insights are very telling and completely appropriate.

As someone entrenched in technological and humanistic disciplines, I’ve had a real pleasure reading this book. Some of Kelly’s thoughts are sure to raise a few eyebrows, but it seems he accomplishes his goal to get us to step back and think over the technology our lives are intertwined with. At the very least, you’ll see how thoroughly he has put together his thoughts, and so eloquently too. I recommend this engaging book deeply to anyone with an interest in technology and to anyone that wishes to learn more about the world around them.  I especially encourage those in technological fields to consider Kelly’s points.

A Rally to Restore Sanity (and the First Amendment)

Monday, November 1st, 2010

This past weekend, I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear), hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It was an incredible experience, and perhaps one monumental to the direction of this country as over 200,000 individuals attended to support a cause not [directly] related to politics. The crowd in attendence was diverse – I was expecting a fairly young bunch but was pleasantly surprised to see much more than the 18-35 age demographic. There were plenty of folks older than 35 and many had brought their children with them. While this astounding rally was not a political one, it did relate strongly to the foundations of our democratic government, particularly to free speech.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution ensures the freedom of press. This is important in ensuring transparency in government and industry affairs. In essence, this permits anyone to call out these institutions on any fishy matters. Unlike in countries such as China or North Korea, you can bad mouth the government and not end up being taken away by the police. Instead, such coversation is actually encouraged in the US and we have a well paid [and listened to] media that is assigned the role of doing this. The very purpose of the media is to inform the citizenry, covering organizations and institutions such as government and business.

Despite fitting this definition, our present media machine is barely useful and perhaps even dangerous. It is full of noise – instead of providing useful information that we Americans can act upon, it tells us all the things to be afraid of, often unnecessarily so. It tells us the extreme points of view and that the country is divided among issues. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, pun intended, where most Americans are simply busy people that want a better country for everyone and are willing to compromise on issues to foster progress.

Although a significant part of our mass media is broken, there is much hope for it. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not merely political satirists – they are also the most influential journalists of this generation. Yes, journalists. They have stepped up to do the job that the rest of broadcast media has blatantly failed at doing. The hundreds of thousands of rally attendees understand this on some level, many unconsciously. And plenty clearly know what this is all about, as one rally member’s sign cleverly stated, “I get my news from Comedy Central and my comedy from Fox News.” Equally interesting is that the mainstream media didn’t understand that the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/Fear) was in fact about them, as this article [and the laughable videos of CNN, NBC, and Fox embedded] articulates.

Aside from Stewart and Colbert, the internet itself has proved to be a fantastic tool in reinforcing the First Amendment. Blogs provide a world of information in a globally accessible domain. The thoughts I share in this very post will reach more people than ever possible just a few years ago.

Transparency is not only important for the American people, but also for politicians. I believe that most government officials truly want to stand up for their official constituents (as in people, not corporations) and make the country a better place for everyone. But there are plenty of politicians that use the lack of transparency to push their own agendas forward at the cost of the American people. Likewise, insidious corporations will push for their interests when their actions can’t be unveiled.  However, we’re at a transition point, and one that’s for the better. We are reversing the consolidation of media. We have better tools than ever before to allow for transparency. A better world for Americans will prevail so long as we let useful media restore our sanity and prevent overblown media from keeping the fear alive.