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#1,189 – Hike Mic

The other day I was strolling through the woods in Asheville, North Carolina when my friend remarked how she wished she knew what she was looking at.  What kind of flower is that over there? Which one of these trees is producing those beautiful red leaves? When was this trail made and by whom?

We discovered a lot of interesting things on our hike that day.  One of the biggest leaves I’ve ever seen.  Cool moss covered logs.  An immaculately preserved acorn.  A mysterious metallic object protruding from the ground.

Answers to her questions were harder to come by.

This got me thinking.  What if there was a way that we could stay informed on a hike?  What if there was a way that we could have an expert level travel companion with us at all times?  Someone who could tell us about the foliage and the sediment, about the geology and the local history.  Someone who could tell us how much farther we had to go to reach our destination or let us know if we were lost.  Someone who could even let us know about good food in the area for when our hike was done and we needed to refuel.

What I’m imagining then is an audio tour phone app specifically designed for hiking.  Similar to the audio tours offered in museums, Hike Mic would inform hikers about what they were seeing as they approached various landmarks.  Available in dozens of languages Hike Mic could either inform a single hiker or be broadcast out to a group of trailblazers.  Depending on how long you’ll be hiking for you could either listen to a shorter informational only stream or for longer hikes enjoy a stream that has several songs mixed in.

Imagine if you will, listening to a brief description of how a particular rock formation was formed by a moving glacier, and then suddenly, as you begin your ascent, hearing Eye of the Tiger from the Rocky movies.  A program that could effortlessly toggle between song and information as you reach various mile markers would be absolutely amazing.  Famous naturalists, explorers, adventurers, and climbers could provide the narrations.  Or you could even make it open source and allow for anyone to add messages and tidbits to the trails that they frequent.

When people go for walks in the woods it’s usually because they want to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  Want to go somewhere where they can unplug and decompress.  Be alone with their thoughts.  And I get all that.  But what about everyone else?  What about the insatiably curious or the wandering wonderers? What about all the people who want to stay informed? Who want to stay connected? For those people maybe one day they’ll be Hike Mic.

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Is Hike Mic the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The Big Four, as they are commonly referred to, have come to dominate modern life as we know it.  The phone in our pocket or tablet in our hand that we use to stay connected with friends on Facebook was made by Apple.  The online searches that we conduct are powered by Google.  The groceries and supplies that we have delivered are ordered through Amazon.  Other companies like Microsoft dabble in relevancy.  But for now, and the immediate future, it’s all about the Big Four.

To secure this narrative Apple is launching the iPhone X and taking the lead on integrating Augmented Reality into their devices.  Previously, Facebook bought Oculus to lead the charge into Virtual Reality.  Meanwhile, Amazon’s Echo gave them a head start on dominating the Internet of Things and connected home markets.  All the while Google presses ahead with their moonshots from driverless cars to curing age related diseases.  The Big Four isn’t going anywhere.  Far from it.  They’re core businesses are all doing well as they transition to mobile computing and their big bets are well diversified across a myriad of industries from AI and drones to telecommunications and content creation.

The question that I like to grabble with is what comes next?  How long can the Big Four stay on top?  Will a massive conglomerate supplant them all?  Will a fifth company ever join their ranks, and if so, who will it be?  No matter how you slice it, there’s only one possible answer.  What comes next is whatever Elon Musk has planned.

And according to Futurism, what’s next, is a global network of satellites capable of providing low cost Internet access.

“SpaceX seems to be taking a step forward in its plan to provide low-cost global internet access via a network of satellites. According to a report from GeekWire, SpaceX has filed to trademark the name ‘Starlink’ for the network. CEO Elon Musk first announced his intention to begin the project back in 2015. More detailed plans were laid out in May, including the intention to launch 4,425 satellites into orbit between 2019 and 2024.  Musk estimated that the network could cost upward of $10 billion to get started, but foresees it as a major source of revenue for the company once it is up and running.”

So let’s say that this initiative is vastly successful and does indeed become a major revenue stream for SpaceX.  Now, let’s say that their reusable rocket business continues to take off, pun intended, and they get into sub-orbital shipping and even space tourism as well and so at the end of the day you’re talking about this major company that’s just absolutely crushing it.  Now let’s say that Tesla with their driverless cars and trucks and their energy powerpacks and powerwalls is also absolutely crushing it.  Now, here’s where things get interesting.  What if Elon Musk combines those two companies with all of his other initiatives (Solar City, the Boring Company, the Hyperloop, Neuralink, plus whatever else he dreams up the next time he’s bored) and creates one major company.  What would that look like? Would this entity, with its focus on transportation/shipping/energy/access to the Internet, etc. be powerful enough to compete with the Big Four?!?! Could it supplant them all on its own?

Obviously, only time will tell, but it is worth speculating about now.  For when Elon Musk announces something new, in this case Starlink, it’s not necessarily just a stand-alone announcement.  For all we know it’s the latest step in his master plan to join the Big Four.  Which begs the question: what does he have planned next?!!?

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Is Starlink the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Have you ever said something and then had someone else ask, “and you’re proud of that?”  Perhaps you were in college and were bragging about how you got a B in a class despite never even opening the textbook once.  Or maybe you were on a date recently talking about how your lazy ass just binge watched five seasons of a reality TV show in only two days.

If life has taught me anything it’s that you have to be careful about what you’re putting out into the world.  Especially in today’s day and age where every waking thought that we have is captured on social media for posterity.  And yet, in spite of that, and in spite of the inevitable, “and you’re proud of that?” eye-rolling that I’m about to solicit, I’m going to go ahead and announce to the world something totally ridiculous that I do.  Because I get the sense that it’s something that we all do.  After all, I can’t be the only person that says that I “read” an article even though the only thing that I read was the title.

I do this all the time.  I see something that looks interesting and I immediately forward it to a friend who I think might like it.  Sometimes they actually do read it and then when they ask me a follow-up question about it, I have to reveal that I hadn’t fully read it yet.  Or sometimes they don’t even read either, and then later on when it comes up in conversation, we both have to awkwardly reveal that neither of us have read it! A similar scenario actually just played out the other morning when I told a co-worker that Bill Gates had apologized for the keyboard shortcut Control, Alt, Delete.  When he asked me why, I couldn’t answer.  So we speculated on the reason why and determined that he had apologized for creating an inefficient three step command when only two keys would have gotten the job done.  Is that the real reason for the apology?  I have no idea.  And I probably never will.

This problem is so widespread that I Fucking Love Science even did a test study last year in which they posted interesting sounding sham articles to see how many times the articles would get shared without first being read.   The click bait article in question was about life on another planet being discovered.  If you took the bait and forwarded the article the joke was on you.  There was no ground breaking discovery.  The content of the article was actually about how nobody reads the body of articles anymore.  And yes, in case you’re wondering, I was one of the people who fell for this trick.  Sadly, I wasn’t alone.

According to Forbes, “A recent study confirmed this phenomenon isn’t in our heads; in fact, 59 percent of all links shared on social networks aren’t actually clicked on at all, implying the majority of article shares aren’t based on actual reading. People are sharing articles without ever getting past the headlines. So why is this the case—isn’t the body of an article supposed to be the most important part? What does this mean for content marketers? And what does this mean for our society?”

This may sound like a ridiculous way to go through life, not fully understanding the world we live in, not even taking the time to try to understand it.  But this is sadly a sign of our times.  This is the way that millennials and xennials operate.  In a world that rewards instant gratification, where everybody is pulled in a million different directions at all times, sometimes the only way to get by is by the skin of your teeth.  Why read entire articles, when you get the gist of it by skimming the headline and sub-titles?  This is a generation, after all, that grew up reading the Cliff’s notes version of classic books.  A generation that uses cheat codes to beat video games on the first pass.  A generation that waits for TV shows to show up in their Netflix queue so that they can watch them all at once and not have to sit through commercials or wait weeks for new episodes to come out.  Do you really think that this generation is going to do a deep-dive into long-form journalism or even bother to read past the jump?

Rather than try to change this generation I think we should instead cater to them.  So instead of writing articles that no one’s going to read, let’s instead create a news website that only deals in headlines.  This news site would essentially just be an expansion of the news headlines bar that currently occupies the right hand side of the screen on Facebook.  An infinitely scrollable resource of information and breaking news, as it happens, updated in real-time, in easily digestible, highly informative chunks, designed to cater to busy professionals.  Every headline capable of standing on its own as a cliff notes style summation of what would have been an entire article.

Think of it this way.  If we can communicate in 140 characters, or get our point across in a two second GIF, then why can’t we also have a news service that informs the masses in short bursts?  It won’t be pretty.  But it’ll get the job done.

Sure, this might lead to ridiculous long run on sentence headlines or titles with multiples of sub-titles but it also may lead to a more well-informed general public.  And if that’s the case that would be a win.  In today’s day and age I’ll take a win wherever I can get it.

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Sometimes a catchy headline is all you need.

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#1,161 – Swiipe

Where do you get your news from? Your Facebook feed? Via the Daily Show on Comedy Central or HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver?  From your loud-mouthed co-worked or neighbor?  From the crazy lady on the subway shouting about the end of days? Or dare I ask, from an actual newspaper or nightly news program?

In the future, your answer might be none of the above.  It might be Swiipe, a new Tinder style app that lets you swipe your way to information overload.  Simply swipe left to bypass a story, swipe right to save it for later, or click on it to read it now.

To help you find stories that may interest you the app will let either swipe through entire categories, say business or sports, or select from a collection of various sources. 50 for now, but another 300 on the way.

As Tech PP puts it:

“’Swiipe News’ certainly seems like an app worth trying out as it eliminates all the clutter you usually encounter on a run-in-the-mill news platform with a straightforward and minimalistic design.”

For today’s youth, who have grown accustomed to the act of swiping and of the practice of using their phones for everything, Swiipe could become the portal through which they enter the real world.  In lieu of water cooler talk and newsstands they’ll have swipes and shares.  The fact that the app was created by one of their own, Alex Goodison, a 14 year old from Ireland, who shouldn’t even know what Tinder is, speaks to that.

For now the app is only available on iOS but it should be coming to Android in the near future.

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Changes are coming to the newspaper industry.  In the future you may get your news from a Tinder style app.

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It’s been a couple of weeks since the seventh season of HBO’s Game of Thrones came to an end and there has been nothing that has been able to quench my thirst for more episodes.  With the fate of Westeros hanging in the balance I anxiously devour every new thread on Reddit in hopes of tracking down an important clue.  As if I was a real world version of Samwell Tarly in the bowels of the Citadel.  Is Bran the Night King?  Is Jon the Prince Who Was Promised?  Is Arya’s shape shifting going to play a key role in the end game?  Is any of the travel next season going to make sense?  I need answers and I need them now.  Unfortunately, I’m probably going to have to wait over 500 days, until the spring of 2019 before I can watch my beloved thrones again.

If you’re me, you find this to be unacceptable.  If you’re software engineer Zack Thoutt, you do something about it.  Using an artificial intelligence program known as a Recurrent Neural Network, Thoutt set out to write the sixth book of the series on his own.  Which was probably a wise move since we all know that George R.R. Martin is never going to finish it.

The resulting effort is wildly entertaining as the AI program takes a stab at trying to write in Martin’s style, while also trying to make sense of over 5,000 prior pages of complex world building.  It even tries to advance the plot in what could be a sneak peak of the future of fiction writing.

According to I Fucking Love Science:

“It goes on to take its own direction with the story, introducing a new character called Greenbeard. It predicts Jamie Lannister will *gasp* kill his sister Cersei, and that dragon queen Daenerys will be poisoned by her advisor Varys.

Of course, Martin’s actual storyline is likely to differ wildly. But it’s fun nonetheless to see AI learn his language and style, and then attempt to recreate it. Here’s another excerpt:

‘Jaime yelped, in the dirt, and came to climb off beside his bedchamber, and we could almost find the tunnel at once, but we’d shut it without battle if she sings, then, and you may storm woods for fire to the west, where we feed the others. The rats come home to their lives!’”

If that’s anything like how George R.R. Martin’s actual prose would sound then I won’t be reading the books anytime soon.  Watching the visual stunning hit HBO series is enough for me.  But then again my thirst for more thrones is such that I may have to reconsider my stance, whether it’s reading the original works or the neural network’s take.  Because when it comes to Game of Thrones, something is always better than nothing.

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Is turning over the writing of the Game of Thrones books to AI the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,149 – Facebook Digest

Most people that I know use Facebook.  Not everyone granted.  But most people.  They use it keep tabs on old friends, stalk old flames or seek new ones, broadcast the minutia of their lives, give opinions, seek advice, or do any of the other myriad of things one can do on a social media network.  Some of them even, annoyingly so, use it to play games.  For the last time, Peter, I do not want to join your stupid mafia!

And yet, in spite of that, most people aren’t using it well.  They check in sporadically.   Liking a few pictures here and there, adding a pithy comment or two when the mood strikes.  Most of the additional content on the site, the items for sale, the upcoming events, the group discussions, goes unseen.  There are just too many other things to do.  Too many tweets to send, too many pictures on Instagram to like, too many people on Tinder to swipe through.  There are only so many hours in the day.  Relevant updates get lost in the shuffle all the time.

Facebook obviously wants to change that.  They want to make sure that you spend even more of your previous free time with them scrolling aimlessly through the news feed.  Their failed attempt to take over your phone’s home screen was the first big hint of a larger strategy yet to come.  One that would see them stop at nothing to ensure total global domination.  To get to the point where everyone is using Facebook all the time.  Using the news feed as a homepage for the entire Internet.  Using Facebook Messenger as a WhatsApp clone to conduct conversations and transact business directly with retailers.

Live video is a big part of that strategy.  A way for Facebook to take down YouTube and their rival Google.   President Trump’s own news network has already launched on the platform and more will follow.  Eventually, we’ll even get to the point where snippets from your augmented and virtual reality exploits will be embedded into your feed as well.  The acquisition of Oculus Rift hints at that.  And the latest push by phone manufacturers to build AR apps will further that effort as Facebook continues its march toward dominating the phone industry, doing for mobile advertising what Google did for desktop search advertising.

But it’s not enough.  If Facebook truly wants to take over the world they’re going to have to do more.  Our habits are already engrained.  Our attention already divided and accounted for several times over.  There’s just too much else to do.  Too many other options.  There’s no way that we could ever see every update, no way that we could ever see everything that we’d want to, no way for us to stay fully engaged all the time.  What Facebook really needs then is a shortcut.  A way for us to see the best of Facebook.  Even when we’re not on Facebook.  A way to separate the signal from the noise, the wheat from the chaff.

What I’m envisioning is a newsletter of sorts, called Facebook Digest or The Digest for short, that would compile the best of Facebook, the key status updates (changes to relationship statuses, baby announcements, job promotions, etc.), the trending news links, the most popular posts, etc. and then send them in an easy to digest newspaper format directly to your email inbox.  An algorithm would do the compiling using a combination of a personality profile that you fill out along with relevant metrics such as likes, comments, and clicks to determine what’s trending, what you’re engaged with and what you’d be interested in hearing more about.  This wouldn’t be fake news.  It would be real news, from your real life.

In theory, with the Digest you could follow along with everything that’s happening in Facebook without actually be on Facebook.  The Digest could be the perfect compromise for those of us who have pulled away from the service entirely because of how addictive it became or because we didn’t like how it made us feel.  Facebook would no longer be an all or nothing proposition.  Rather, you could still get your daily fix without having to make a full time-sucking commitment.  It would be the best of both worlds even as it pushes people away from the platform.  It may sound counterintuitive but it would work.  It would be Facebook’s greatest innovation since the advent of the like button.

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Is Facebook Digest the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,137 – Newsbottles

As a writer it pains me to watch the slow but inevitable decline of the newspaper industry.  I got my start as a writer as a journalist, covering sports for my high school newspaper, the Sider Press.  I even won an award my junior year for sports reporting from Newsday, the well respected Long Island centric newspaper that competed with the New York Daily News, the New York Times, and the New York Post for Tri-State readers’ eyeballs.

More than helping to launch my career as a writer though newspapers also helped me get started as a reader.  If it wasn’t for the Daily News sports section and my mom bribing me with twenty bucks to read it I might still be illiterate.  Now, I’m obsessed with reading, rummaging through used book stores on my free time in dogged pursuit of hidden gems.

Unfortunately, newspapers are dying a slow death.  As more and more people get their news online, more and more local papers are shuttering their printing presses.  In a few more years it’s possible that the only publications that exist will be the biggest name brands, the New York Times and Washington Posts of the world.  The local town gazette doesn’t stand a chance.

The key to survival for a newspaper brand is reinvention.  Adapt or die.  Looking at themselves as a company that prints newspapers, things made of paper, that get rolled up and delivered by hand to doorsteps or stacked on street corners, isn’t going to cut it anymore.  Newspapers have long depended on advertising revenues and the advertisers have gone online, have gone instead to mobile phones.  So what can a newspaper do to survive?  It’s simple: think of themselves as a news distributor, not as a newspaper.

In fact, stop referring to the term newspaper.  Don’t mention it.  Don’t even think about it.  Remove the word from the lexicon, entirely.  Instead, think outside the box.  Literally.  Think of the outside of boxes.  Think of the outside of bottles.  Think of alternative places that you can place the news.  If people aren’t going to pick up a physical newspaper anymore bring the paper to them.  Wherever they may be.  Whatever that may look like.  That’s what one Japanese print rag did at least.

According to Springwise, “Market research found that although Japanese millennials do not like purchasing newspapers, they do like to buy bottles of water. Branding agency Dentsu teamed up with Mainichi Newspapers to encourage millennials to connect with print media through their water-drinking habits. Dentsu devised the ‘news bottle’ – a bottle of water with daily news stories printed directly onto its label. The bottles also include an augmented reality component, which enables readers to access Mainichi newspapers online via their smartphones. To reduce costs, space on the bottles was also sold to advertisers.”

It’s a new twist on an old journalism slogan.  Instead of all the news that’s fit to print, it’s all the news that you can fit to print.

Personally, I think this is a great strategy.  Newspapers, newsbottles, what’s the difference really?  Might as well take it a step further and just print the news anywhere you can.  On food packaging.  On toilet paper.  Wherever.  Anywhere it might be seen.  As media theorist Marshall McLuhan once declared, “The Medium is the Message”.  Perhaps he meant that literally.

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All the news that you can fit to print.

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