Archive for May, 2017

On Tuesday night the NBA held its annual lottery to determine the order for the upcoming draft in June.  Prior to the festivities kicking off I asked my cousin, a huge Phoenix Suns fan, for his prediction as to where the Suns would pick.  With the second worst record in the league they were guaranteed to pick somewhere in the top four.  My cousin’s prediction was second.  Mine was fourth.  After all the ping pong balls had fallen and all the dust had settled the Suns had the fourth pick.  Draft orders are easy to predict if you assume that the fix is in.

Of course when it comes to the NBA Draft Lottery lots of people assume that the fix is in.  A few weeks ago Lakes coach Luke Walton let slip that he had been assured by team President Magic Johnson that the Lakes were going to have a top three pick.  Last year a tweet was sent out by the legendary Dikembe Mutombo congratulating the Philadelphia 76ers on getting the first pick in the draft, hours before the results were announced.  This from a league that has been dealing with allegations of a rigged system, pretty much every year, for the entire history of the lottery, from the New York Knicks landing Patrick Ewing to the Cleveland Cavaliers getting hometown hero LeBron James.  At this point the intrigue isn’t around whether or not the lottery is fixed.  We all know it is.  But, rather, in what ways is it fixed.  Who has the most to gain or lose by the way the order plays out?  Which historic franchise is in need of the biggest boost?

The question now becomes: if the lottery is fixed, what can we do about it?  There have been a lot of proposals that aim to address this issue from doing away with the weighted system to instituting the Wheel, which would evenly distribute every spot in the order to every team every thirty years so that teams can plan ahead of time as to when it’ll be their turn to land the top pick.  Most of these plans are nonsensical while a few have some potential.  But now we have a proposal that I can actually get behind and it comes to us from an unlikely source.

During my lunch break the other day I was listening to a local Phoenix sports talk show as they were discussing a proposal to fix the NBA Draft Lottery.  The proposal oddly enough was put forth by a hockey player, the Phoenix Coyotes’ star player in fact, veteran Shane Doan.  It’s a proposal that I’ve heard mentioned before but it’s so good that I think it warrants mentioning again and in greater detail.

Here’s how it would work.  Just like in the NHL teams would accrue points for winning games.  But this would only occur after a team has already been eliminated from the playoffs.  Those points would then determine the draft order with the team having the most points getting to pick first.  The worse you are, the sooner you’ll be eliminated from the playoffs, so the longer you’ll have to accumulate points.  The better teams on the cusp of making the playoffs will have less opportunity to earn points but since they’re better teams they still might win some games down the stretch enabling them to move up a few spots in the draft order.

This system, as crazy as it is, would effectively eliminate tanking and incentivize every non-playoff team to play hard until the end of the regular season.  You wouldn’t have a scenario where teams shut down perfectly healthy players for a quarter of the season as the Phoenix Suns did to star point guard Eric Bledsoe this past year.  And you wouldn’t have a doomsday scenario where two lottery bound teams are playing each other, each trying their hardest to avoid winning the game.  Instead every regular season game would matter as teams jostle for lottery positioning.  Considering how meaningless the regular season is for determining playoff seeding (it doesn’t matter if LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers finish with the #1 seed as long as they just make the playoffs) we could get to a point where the battles down the stretch for lottery positioning are better games than playoff previews between contending teams.

Of course this system wouldn’t necessarily eliminate tanking all together.  In a weird twist of fate it could actually encourage teams to tank the first half of the season just to get eliminated from playoff contention as quickly as possible so that they can start to accrue points as quickly as possible.

But at the same time you’d have to think that the end result would be an improvement over the current state of the game.  With so few teams having a legitimate chance at winning the title thanks to the ability of transcendent stars like LeBron James to influence so much of the game play, a twenty team race to the top of the draft could generate real intrigue in every city from coast to coast.

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Is a points based system for determining the NBA draft order the Greatest Idea Ever?

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For years we’ve been hearing about how the Internet of Things is going to change the way we live.  Providing us with smart homes filled with smart appliances that work in concert with one another, monitoring our supplies and maintaining optimal living conditions, in order to provide us with a minimally evasive lifestyle of utmost convenience.

The Amazon Echo speaker was the first widely popular smart home device, a gateway drug of sorts that could lead us to buying coffee pots that turn on as soon as we wake up and refrigerators that automatically order milk for us when we are running low.  But if that vision of the future is coming to come to fruition we’re going to need to reconcile a lot of issues.  Such as the fact that most smart devices use different protocols, can’t talk to one another, contain potentially obtrusive cameras and sensors, and generally cost more than their offline counterparts.

Thankfully there may soon be a workaround on the way.  That’s because Gierad Laput, a graduate student from Carnegie Mellon, has created a relatively low-cost device the size of a game boy cartridge that can plug into a wall socket and turn an entire room into a smart room in one fell swoop.

As Wired puts it, “If you want to set up a connected home, you’ve got two options. You can buy a bunch of smart gadgets that may or may not communicate with other smart gadgets. Or you can retrofit all of your appliances with sensor tags, creating a slapdash network. The first is expensive. The second is a hassle. Before long, though, you might have a third choice: One simple device that plugs into an electrical outlet and connects everything in the room.”

Once “connected” you’ll have a command center of sorts at your disposal; one that is able to surmise what is happening or has happened in your home.

Wired explains how it works:

“Plug the module into an electrical outlet and it becomes the eyes and ears of the room, its 10 embedded sensors logging information like sound, humidity, electromagnetic noise, motion, and light (the researchers excluded a camera for privacy reasons). Machine learning algorithms translate that data into context-specific information about what’s happening in the room. Synthetic Sensors can tell you, for example, if you forgot to turn off the oven, how much water your leaky faucet is wasting, or whether your roommate is swiping your snacks.”

In my estimation this invention won’t solve all of our connected home problems.  It’ll still makes sense to go out and buy a bunch of smart home devices if you want the added convenience.  However, where Synthetic Sensors could thrive is when it’s used in conjunction with a smart home, as a way of monitoring what’s happening, figuring out where you could save money, and just generally serving as an extra pair of eyes and ears around your home.

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Is Synthetic Sensor the Greatest Idea Ever?

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On last night’s episode of Silicon Valley, a paranoid Gilfoyle take action when he realizes that Dinesh’s hacker girlfriend has infiltrated the apartment’s Wi-Fi network and is using it to effectively spy on them.  In a panicked state the duo ripped wires out of the wall, covered up their webcams with duct tape, and took various other actions to try and safeguard their apartment from their virtual intruder.

The scenario that played out last night is the one that we often associate with our Wi-Fi routers.  That some hacker in Estonia is trying to enter our home networks to steal our social security numbers or bank account numbers.  Or less nefariously that our neighbors are trying to steal our signal.

But now we can add one more privacy fear to Wi-Fi routers: the fact that one day they may be used to spy on us by using holograms to recreate what the inside of an apartment looks like.

As Science Mag puts it, “Your wireless router may be giving you away in manner you never dreamed of. For the first time, physicists have used radio waves from a Wi-Fi transmitter to encode a 3D image of a real object in a hologram similar to the image of Princess Leia projected by R2D2 in the movie Star Wars. In principle, the technique could enable outsiders to ‘see’ the inside of a room using only the Wi-Fi signals leaking out of it…”

This technology comes to us from scientists at the Technical University of Munich and obviously won’t just be used for spying.  There are plenty of practical applications that could benefit society as well, such as using the technology during disaster recovery efforts to locate victims that may be trapped inside a burning building.

But for those of you who may still have spying concerns you can rest easy knowing that your humble abode will likely never get mapped.

According to CNET, “The development of this technology is still in an early state. But for those concerned about privacy, [paper co-author Friedemann] Reinhard said the movable antenna required to scan an entire room or a building would be very large and couldn’t be installed clandestinely.”

So for now all you really have to worry about are your neighbors.  Or if you’re anything like Dinesh, your crazy hacker girlfriend.

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Are Wi-Fi holograms the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The Echo speaker, powered by Alexa, helped Amazon jump out to the surprise early lead in the race against Apple and Google for control of our living rooms.  At CES earlier this year, Alexa’s influence was everywhere with the technology showing up in everything from internet connected refrigerators to smart home control hubs.  It was Amazon’s subtle way of announcing to the world: Like it or not, Alexa is here to stay.

Now, just five months later, Amazon has announced two new products, the Echo Look and Echo Show, that take that line of thinking a step further: Since Alexa is here to stay we’re going to double down and dress her up with fancy new features to make her even more appealing.

First up is the Echo Look.  For an additional $20 you can get an Echo with a camera on it that will enable you to say things like, “Alexa, take a picture” or “Alexa, shoot a video”.  The basic premise here is that you’ll be able to take a picture of yourself wearing various outfits in order to receive advice on your style and look.  Sure beats the always impossible to answer inquiry: “honey, do these jeans make me look fat?”

The Echo Look is likely to solicit eye rolling from people who were already weary of the Echo’s always-on ability to listen to and record our every word.  By adding a camera, the thinking goes, now Amazon can see everything we do too Big Brother style.  Thankfully, that’s not going to be the case as the Echo Look comes with an off switch so that you can switch off the camera when you’re not ready to use it.

The Echo Show on the other hand isn’t as gimmicky as the Echo Look.  Rather, it’s basically the Echo 2.0, a more advanced version of the original that lets you see, not just hear, the information that Alexa has curated for you.

As Wired puts it, “That’s what makes Amazon’s newest Echo, the $229 Echo Show, a smart move. It’s an Echo … with a screen. The Chumby lookalike exists mostly to talk and listen, but glance at the screen and you’ll notice that as it reads your calendar events, it displays them, too. When it announces that the Warriors won, it shows you the box score. It lets you interact with almost everything by touch or by voice, using whichever one you find most convenient.”

Having the ability to see the information that Alexa has selected for you is a real game changer.  Not just in an aesthetically pleasing way but rather in a practical sense.  For instance, now when you ask, “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing?” instead of a monotonous response about the latest world news you’ll instead be shown the latest video clips.  This is a much more efficient way of communicating the information in question.

Better yet, the screen can easily be used as a teleconference monitor in lieu of Skype.  So now if you want to have a video chat with your mom or children you won’t have to whip out your iPad, open up the Skype app, search your contacts, and then place the call.  All you’d have to do is say, “Alexa, call mom.”

Examples like that highlight just how convenient the Echo Show can be.  And that’s just scratching the surface.  Once developers get their hands on the Echo Show all bets are off.  So, if you’ve ever thought about getting an Echo the addition of a screen, and a touch screen at that, essentially makes it a no brainer.  Just be sure to leave room in your budget for whatever else Amazon has in store for Alexa.

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Is the Echo Show the Greatest Idea Ever?

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If learning a new skill was as quick and easy as downloading an app what would you want to add?  Would you download the ability to play the piano or violin?  Would you learn CRP or self-defense moves? Acquire the ability to cook a seven course meal or recite the constellations in the Western Hemisphere?

While it sounds far-fetched, in the future it may be possible to do just that; to download skills to the brain ala Trinity and Neo in the Matrix.

According to Futurism, “In March 2016, DARPA — the U.S. military’s ‘mad science’ branch — announced their Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) program. The TNT program aims to explore various safe neurostimulation methods for activating synaptic plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to alter the connecting points between neurons — a requirement for learning. DARPA hopes that building up that ability by subjecting the nervous system to a kind of workout regimen will enable the brain to learn more quickly.”

If this program is proven successfully it would obviously be a boon to the military who might be able to use it to quickly train soldiers to learn new languages or pick up how to use new weapons system.  It would also greatly reduce the length of time it takes to train new soldiers.  Say goodbye to boot camp!

As the DARPA website puts it, “The TNT program seeks to advance the pace and effectiveness of cognitive skills training through the precise activation of peripheral nerves that can in turn promote and strengthen neuronal connections in the brain. TNT will pursue development of a platform technology to enhance learning of a wide range of cognitive skills, with a goal of reducing the cost and duration of the Defense Department’s extensive training regimen, while improving outcomes.”

Like most military technology this research might also wind up one day making its way to civilian life as well.  Enabling us to live the dream of getting smarter without having to actually put the work in.

It’s ironic really, if you think about it.  This whole time we’ve been complaining about technology, about how offloading our memory to Google is actually making us dumber.  But here’s a new technology that would literally make us smarter!

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Is DARPA’s plan the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Information is everywhere.  It’s all around us.  Within our DNA.  Encoded within the approximate 30 million items worldwide that have barcodes on them.  In the 1s and 0s of every phone, tablet, and computer around the world.  And that’s just the beginning.  Soon information will be everywhere from our clothes to any object or surface that we can think of.  That’s because a team of researchers from Duke University have created spray-on memory that can be used to add information to pretty much anything from paper to plastic.  Even if we’re talking about curved or bendable materials.

According to Idea Connection:

“Duke University researchers have created the first spray-on memory, which could lead to programmable electronics printed on paper or fabric.  The spray-on digital memory relies on an aerosol jet printer able to print nanoparticle inks at low temperatures. The nanowires and polymer are dissolved in methanol and then ejected through the printer nozzle, resulting in a small, printable memory device with a ‘writespeed’ of three microseconds [that is] able to retain the information for up to ten years without degradation.”

The key, according to Wired, is to store the date using resistance instead of varying states of electrical charge:

“Published in the Journal of Electronic Materials, the researchers describe how the material, made of silica-coated copper nanowires encased in a polymer matrix, stores data in states of resistance.  Using resistance to store data, instead of states of electrical charge, means that a voltage can be applied to help store and access the data quickly and easily.  ‘By applying a small voltage, it can be switched between a state of high resistance, which stops electric current, and a state of low resistance, which allows current to flow,’ a statement from the University explains. The nanowires and polymer can then be dissolved into liquid form and sprayed using a printer.”

What excites me the most about this invention, aside from the obvious limitless commercial applications, is that this approach is really just scratching the surface of what data storage in the future is going to look like.

As Wired explains:

“The attempt to create a new way to store data is one of a number of different approaches being created by academics. In March, academics from Columbia University and the New York Genome Center demonstrated how they were able to store a movie, operating system, and an Amazon gift card in DNA. In the work, the data from – totaling 2,146,816 bytes – was converted to DNA using an algorithm before being retrieved ‘perfectly’ from its state of storage.

Elsewhere, a tiny engraved piece of glass has been able to store 360TB of five dimensional data. A team at the University of Southampton stored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Magna Carta and the Bible on the glass by storing it on five dimensions: height, width, depth, and two other dimensions produced by nanostructures in the glass.”

What other ways will we invent to store and read data in the future?  That remains to be seen.  The only thing that’s certain at this point is that information is all around us and soon we’ll mean that literally.

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Is Spray On Memory (pictured at left) the Greatest Idea Ever?

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This past weekend I drove up to Sedona and Flagstaff where I hiked by day and star gazed by night.  A light sleeper I decided to bring my pillows and a blanket with me so as to not risk a restless night at the hands of the hotel’s accommodations.  Friday night I was able to park right by my room so no one noticed me coming in.  But Saturday night I had to walk through the hotel lobby in order to get to my room.  Here I am, a grown man, walking through a hotel lobby carrying my blankie.  I dreaded the stares and comments that I would get and sure enough the hot girl at the front desk made fun of me.  Fine.  I probably deserved it.  But there are plenty of people who could soon benefit from carrying around a 25 pound blankie.  And that’s no laughing matter.

According to Futurism:

“In the United States alone, roughly 10% of the population is affected by a sleep disorder, and a staggering 18% of the population lives with an anxiety disorder. More than 11 million people suffer from ADHD. And this is just the beginning of the problem.”

So what can we do about it?  Drape ourselves in a comfortable blankie!!! The blanket, known as Gravity, works by applying pressure to key parts of our body and in so doing helping us to relax.

As Futurism describes, the process is called, “proprioceptive input (also known as “deep touch pressure stimulation”). It works by activating pressure points across your body. This relaxes the nervous system by increasing serotonin and melatonin levels while decreasing cortisol levels. In this respect, research into proprioceptive input shows that deep pressure stimulation produces a calming influence—one that decreases stress, improves sleep, and boosts mental health.”

The Gravity Kickstarter page adds that the blanket is, “engineered to be around 10% of your body weight, [and] helps relax the nervous system by simulating the feeling of being held or hugged.”

So the next time you see someone carrying around a blanket try not to make fun of them.  Even if they are a 34 year old man walking through the lobby of a hotel.  For all you know they could be an anxiety sufferer rocking the Gravity blanket.

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Is the Gravity Blanket the Greatest Idea Ever?

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