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Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Facebook’s goal, their obsession really, is to make sure that everybody, and I do mean everybody, is one day connected to each other, and to their platform.   And they will stop at nothing to ensure that this goal is met, whether that’s creating virtual worlds through the Oculus Rift or inventing solar powered planes that beam internet access down to people in the developing world.   Now it appears that they may be on the verge of taking even more drastic measures to ensure that their goal is met: entering our minds.

As Recode puts it, “Facebook is building what it calls a “brain-computer speech-to-text interface,” technology that’s supposed to translate your thoughts directly from your brain to a computer screen without any need for speech or fingertips.  The idea is that this technology will be able to take what you’re thinking to yourself in silence, using non-invasive sensors that can read exactly what you intend to say, and turn it into readable text.”

The Verge adds:

“The technology is being developed by Facebook’s Building 8 research group, led by ex-DARPA director and former head of Google’s experimental research group Regina Dugan.  Dugan compared the technology to the cochlea in your ear, which translates sound into information readable by your brain. Facebook says it’s possible to reproduce the cochlea’s functions with hardware and then transmit that information to the brain by delivering it through a person’s skin.”

If Dugan is involved in the project there’s a high likelihood that it will be successful but that begs the question: would we want it to be?  Do we really want Facebook to know what we’re thinking when they already know too much about us based on what we willingly put out into the world?  In short, I think the answer is yes.

For starters, telepathy has long been at the top of our sci-fi wish lists along with flying cars, time travel, and teleportation.  Facebook’s approach sounds like it might be the closest we’ve come so far to achieving that goal and who knows, maybe it can one day lead to true telepathy.  Secondly, it sounds like it would improve our lives by making our social media interactions more efficient.  Why bother typing or speaking a message when you can just think it.  In theory, using this technology, students could pass notes to one another in class without their teacher finding out, and co-workers could do the same during a boring staff meeting.  And lastly, in a more practical sense, this approach could save a lot of money, maybe even make is possible for people in the developing world to interact with one another seamlessly.  After all, when you are communicating through your thoughts and skin you no longer have a need for a phone, tablet, or computer.

With all that being said is this concept still creepy?  Yes, definitely yes.  But, is it also cool?  An even bigger yes!

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Is Facebook’s brain to skin interface the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,045 – Heliograf

A twenty-four hour convenience store, known as Wheelys, just opened in China and will operate without any human intervention or even a cash register.  Patrons will use a phone app to open the door to the store, scan what they want to purchase, and just walk out.  No hassle.  No friction.

This futuristic shopping experience is just another reminder that the majority of jobs currently available to humans will one day become obsolete thanks to automation and advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence.  Basically, suffice it to say, if the humble grocery store can get by without a stock clerk, cashier, or security guard then no one is safe.  Every walk of life is about to get upgraded whether we like it or not.

I always assumed that as a writer that I would be safe.  Not from competition mind you.  That would actually increase ten-fold, a thousand-fold, a million-fold (?) as our entire species, freed from mundane tasks by automation, turned to creative pursuits to make a living.  But, rather, from becoming obsolete myself.  Because while machines are great at doing the things they’ve been programmed to do they’d never be able to do the things that humans excel at.  Things like thinking critically, making inferences, recognizing patters and trends, drawing conclusions, etc.  Boy, was I wrong.

That’s because the Washington Post, the fledgling outfit purchased by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos a few years back, has turned to technology to solve some of their problems, such as not being able to keep up with the tedious task of manually tracking election day outcomes by hand.  The result is an artificially intelligent robo-reporter known as Heliograf.

Now Heliograf isn’t the first of its kind.  There are already plenty of algorithms capable of turning data streams into stories.  My fantasy baseball and football teams, on CBS and Yahoo respectively, already have their exploits written up by a bot that can churn our reasonably compelling matchup recaps.  But Heliograph takes auto writing to a whole new level.  That’s because it doesn’t just write what it’s told to.  It also tells you what to write about.  And it doesn’t just write articles using static figures.  Rather, it constantly updates them.

As Wired reports, “the next step is to use Heliograf to keep the data in both machine- and human-written stories up-to-date. For instance, if someone shares a Tuesday story on Thursday, and the facts change in the meantime, Heliograf will automatically update the story with the most recent facts.”

Eventually, it could also do things like, “search the web to see what people are talking about, check the Post to see if that story is being covered, and, if not, alert editors or just write the piece itself.”

For the Post the appeal of Heliograf is obvious: it can handle mundane tasks, churn out hundreds of hyper-local stories, keep information up to date, and free up human reporters to do more interesting things like long-form, deep-dive reporting.  For now.  Eventually, it will probably be able to do that too.  Maybe one day it’ll even win a Pulitzer.  Perhaps I ought to re-think my career choice.

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Is Heliograf the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,035 – Neurofiction

What if a book could read you?

That’s the premise behind a new literary experience designed to up end the traditional way that we consume printed material.  Instead of just reading a story that’s been mass produced for everyone, you would instead get to enjoy a unique tale that changes in conjunction with your emotional state.  Think of it like a literal Choose Your Own Adventure.  Albeit one without conscious choice.

The concept, known as Neurofiction, is the brain child of science fiction author Hannu Rajaniemi and was recently unveiled at the Edinburgh International Science Festival with a twist on a classic Disney story.

As Wired explains, “Volunteers would don the [EMOTIV] Epoc headset, then read the story of Snow White, and the story would branch and change in different ways, depending on whether the volunteer showed more affinity for ‘life’ or ‘death’ imagery.”

In other words, if you wanted a happy ending that’s exactly what you’d get.  This approach to story-telling could be a total game changer for Hollywood.  Instead of force feeding everyone cookie cutter stories that have been engineered to appeal to the largest percentage of people, you could instead tailor stories to individual  viewers and their individual tastes.  No matter how twisted or outside of the norm they may be.

Neurofiction is obviously still in the early stages of development.  There is, after all, only prototype so far.  But personally, I feel like this could be the start of a new form of entertainment.  Truly interactive content that puts you, or at least your subconscious, in the driver’s seat while reading.  Who knows, it may even be enough to get people to stop binge watching shows or playing video games, and, you know, actually pick up a book every once in a while.

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Is Neurofiction the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

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#983 – The B.S. Detector

When I was in high school I had designs on creating a newspaper to compete with the school sanctioned Sider Press.  I was going to call it V.I.P., short for Voices in Print, as the paper would tell stories through the perspectives of the people living them.  Instead of boring fact based recaps you’d get lively, insightful long form deep dives on the issues affecting the student body and the community at large.

V.I.P. never saw the light of day but the idea of starting a publication still resonates with me.  And considering how easy it is to do nowadays I might want to consider giving V.I.P. another shot.  After all, if you want to make it big today as a journalist you don’t need a big budget or large staff.  You don’t even need morals, credibility, or journalistic integrity.  All you need is an over-active imagination and a salacious headline and you’ve got yourself some click bait.  Welcome to the wonderful new world of journalism where reputable sources like the New York Times are dragged through the mud by the President of the United States and fake websites publishing outright lies have the power to influence who wins and loses elections.

As Vox put it, “recent research has found that 44 percent of all adults get their news from Facebook, and that social media can directly influence the political views of people on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. So, it’s reasonable to assume that fake news shared on Facebook — whether it’s left-leaning or right-leaning — has the potential to reach and even sway a considerable number of the site’s 1 billion active users.”

And sway they did.  In fact, in some instances, two sides of the same story, the truth and a fake twist on it, would get shared a disproportionate amount of times, with the fake news story getting more views than the real one.  The end result?  An Internet troll is now the 45th President of the United States of America.  And the shocking truth is that this isn’t a fluke.  It’s our new reality.

You see, the Internet has the ultimate ability to democratize power.  Information wants to be free and our governments can’t hide their secrets from the public any longer.  Police brutality can be easily captured by a smartphone camera and shared on Twitter millions of times over before a cover up can begin.  Protesters can easily mobilize their efforts and coordinate their movements.  Dissidents can speak out against abuse.  The Internet has the power to simultaneously bring about revolution (the Arab Spring) and squash it (Turkey’s failed coup attempt).

As a result, politicians, political leaders, and governments have to re-think the way they do business.  Adapt or die.  The only problem is that by the time everyone realized how easy it was for fake news to spread the damage had already been done.  Opinions had already been formed.  Biases already firmly established.  And just like in the good old days of the Cold War we have the Russians to blame.

According to the Verge:

“A Russian propaganda apparatus was successful in spreading fake or false news stories during the recent US election, Washington Post reports. The findings come from a new, unpublished report provided to the Post that found more than 200 websites responsible for publishing Russian propaganda during the election cycle. These sites had a combined readership of 15 million Americans.

The campaign reportedly included the use of thousands of botnets, a network of websites and social media accounts, and a team of people paid to push conspiracy theories online. Some of the most common propaganda stories claimed that Hillary Clinton’s health was declining, that people were paid thousands of dollars to protest Trump, and, in the weeks leading up to election day, that the election was rigged.”

Today’s political propaganda isn’t air dropped in via military aircraft.  It’s retweeted and shared from within.  The pen isn’t mightier than the sword but a tweet sure is.  Just look at the power that a lone disingenuous tweet from a sixteen year old has as Donald Trump takes the bait and claims that the election that he won was rigged.  When everyone’s lying how do you know who to believe?  You don’t.  Not really.  Not anymore.  Until now, that is.

Enter the B.S. Detector, a new Google Chrome extension that will flag links appearing in your Facebook feed if their domains are not from reputable news organizations.  As Lifehacker puts it, “While most of us are already programmed to ignore obviously fake tabloids at the supermarket, we’re still adjusting to the era of fake news online. It’s just as easy to share an article from a site created by a Macedonian teen as it is to share from the Washington Post. If you’re not used to checking the reliability of news sources, it might be easy to get duped. B.S. Detector aims to help make it easier to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.”

Of course there are some obvious issues with this extension.  Mainly that it’s only effective if people download it and conspiracy theory nut jobs aren’t likely the kind of people who will be taking the time to do that.  Plus the bad guys can probably create new domains faster than we can block them.  What we really need is for Facebook itself to step in and create filters that can ensure the integrity of their site.  However, they are still in denial that they even have a problem.  So for now it’s the B.S. Detector to the rescue!

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Is the B.S. Detector the Greatest Idea Ever?

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With the changing colors of leaves in the autumn comes a whole different type of change to my life: the addition of a new suite of fall TV shows to watch.  This year there was the likes of McGyver, Frequency, and Timeless.  All of which I’ve already stopped watching since there just isn’t enough time in the day to keep up with them.  Especially when I’d rather be outside hiking and attending Arizona Fall League games during this time of year.

Despite my reluctance to sit at home and watch TV I may soon find myself doing exactly that thanks to a new offering from John Hendricks, creator of the Discovery Channel, known as Curiosity Stream.  This $2.99 a month on demand subscription service is available to you on Apple TV, Roku and the like and will allow you to watch documentaries and other exclusive content about a variety of topics designed to pique your curiosity.

For example, you’ll be able to do deep dives and learn more about the Universe, our National Parks, or extreme weather.  Anything and everything you can think of from the worlds of science and technology will be covered with thousands of offerings to chose from. With scientific heavyweights such as Stephen Hawking, Vint Cerf and Michio Kaku headlining some of the offerings to boot.  No wonder Mashable has referred to it as the Netflix for non-fiction.

The Los Angeles Times adds that, “Curiosity Stream is expected to feature a mix of content acquired from BBC, NHK and other producers as well as original programming. Aimed at the ‘curious’ population, the programming should be understandable, Hendricks says, to everyone from 13-year-olds who enjoy building soda-bottle rockets to retirees looking for deep commentary on the latest scientific breakthroughs.”

Now I know what you’re thinking and while it is true that Netflix already has quite a few documentaries available and that services like the Wall Street Journal and CNET already offer streaming video clips aimed at technology nerds, Curiosity Stream still seems like it would be worth the investment.  Especially when you consider who is making the content and how well done it is.  The only real downside to the Curiosity Stream is that you’ll now have less time to play outside.

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Is Curiosity Stream the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#957 – Prime Reading

As an avid magazine reader whenever I hear the words “free” and “magazine” together in the same sentence my ears perk up.  And that’s exactly what happened earlier today when I discovered that as an Amazon Prime member I now have access to hundreds of “free” magazines, books, and other literary sources.

As Engadget puts it, “While members of the Amazon Prime club get all kinds of benefits with their subscription, bookworms don’t receive a great deal of special treatment. Sure, they can borrow one e-book for free each month and access new novels early, but the all-you-can-read Kindle Unlimited service requires a separate, $10 per month subscription of its own. That isn’t changing today, but Amazon has just announced something of a lightversion of Unlimited called Prime Reading, which is now available to Prime subscribers in the US.  Prime Reading lets members access over a thousand ‘popular’ books for free, from The Hobbit to Lonely Planet guides, as well as full issues of well-known magazines, comics and short works from the Kindle Singles catalog (including Classics). The carousel of content will rotate too, so you should find new things added to the Prime Reading list fairly often. With winter fast approaching, it’s time to get your neglected e-reader recharged, the fire stoked and some free stuff downloaded.”

The word rotating in that second to last sentence scares me though.  When I first heard about Prime Reading I got excited when I realized that their magazine offerings include Baseball America, a publication that I’ve subscribed to for the last ten years.  Considering that my subscription on my iPad just ended this was perfect timing.  Or was it?  If I only have access to Baseball America for a few weeks that means I’d probably still have to subscribe to it to make sure that I’m always receiving it.  And if I’m subscribing to it anyway then what’s the point of even having Prime Reading?  The same would hold true for any other magazine title.  Prime Reading isn’t a Next Issue replacement.  Rather it’s just a nice stop gap measure for people who weren’t already reading magazines.  So are we talking about everything coming and going or will there be standard fare with additional content rotating in?  Unclear.

The rotating idea does make sense from the content creators point of view though.  I never understood how a publisher would stand to make money from an app like Next Issue that acted like the Netflix of magazines, serving up unlimited fare for a set monthly price.  Presumably they weren’t.  Likely losing money in the process, although to be fair, magazine sales were dwindling for a long time anyway.  But with a rotation the publishers could stand to make money down the road, drumming up interest in their product for free and then converting those new fans into paying customers once the rotation ends.

In that regard it would seem to be a win-win-win situation.  Amazon wins as more people sign up for Prime.  Publishers win if they wind up with more paying customers.  And consumers conceivably win too based on having access to all this additional content.  But is it the slam dunk that it appeared to be on the surface?  No.  As if often the case there’s always a caveat.

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Is Prime Reading the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#947 – Atlas Obscura

A book arrived in the mail today.  A book unlike any other.  Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels, which got me started as a reader, were amazing, but they don’t compare.  The Harry Potter books that I would devour in one day were incredible, but they aren’t even in the same zip code.  Moneyball, which I loved, isn’t even in the same ballpark.  No, the greatest book of all time is likely to be one that you probably haven’t heard of yet.  Say hello to your new best friend:  Atlas Obscura, a book highlighting weird, obscure, and interesting places.

The reason why this book appeals to me so much is because of my new found love for travel and exploration.  Over the last three years I’ve visited cities such as Portland, Seattle, Houston, San Diego, and San Francisco.  All for the first time.  Being on my own there’s only so much sightseeing that I can do.  And considering that I’m not a foodie and that I don’t drink, when I visit a new place I look for other things to do.  Outside the box things. Take my recent trip to Seattle for example.  I went hunting for antiques in the Pike Market underground, nerded out at the EMP Museum’s Star Trek exhibit, the Pacific Science Center’s Lego exhibit, and the Museum of History and Innovation’s History of Toys exhibit, and, best of all, learned about the history of Seattle when I toured their vast network of underground tunnels that preserve the way the city used to look like over one hundred years ago.  I even visited Bruce Lee’s grave site and the world famous Gum Wall Alley, where visitors still stick pieces of used chewing gum on a wall to continue a tradition started by a pissed off concert goer years ago after he couldn’t get into a sold out show.  I was able to do all that, thanks in part, to the Atlas Obscura website which steered me towards the lesser known side of Seattle.  The side featuring the Fremont Troll and the Ye Olde Curiosity Shop instead of the tourist trap Space Needle and its gift shop.  The side that gives you a true, authentic feeling of what it’s like to live in Seattle, not just pass through it.

Portland has its fair share of obscure places as well as Porlandia can attest to.  Sure, you may have heard about Powell Books, the privately owned bookstore that runs the length of a city block. But did you know that hidden inside is a rare book room that requires special access?  You’ve probably heard about Forest Park, the country’s largest city based forest.  But did you know about the Witches Castle, an abandoned and allegedly haunted Ranger Station, tucked away just off the side of the main road that intersects the park? You could go to Portland and have a great time visiting the International Rose Test Garden among other hot spots.  But will you have as good of a time as the person who grabs a cup of coffee in the Rimsky-Korsakoffee cafe where the tables move around as you’re trying to use them?

Obscurity is everywhere.  St. Louis’ City Museum is a giant obstacle course playground for adults.  President’s Park in Virginia is filled with oversized busts of former White House residents.  The Paper Factory Hotel in New York is, yep, you guessed it, a hotel converted from a Paper Factory featuring a staircase made out of books.  Name a city, any city, and you’re likely to find dozens of quirky locales…if you know where to look.  Atlas Obscura does and they capture all those details eloquently.  Or so I hear.  I imagine that reading it is going to solicit uncontrollable wanderlust.  A burning desire to pick myself up and go visit all of the places described throughout its pages all at once.  So if you can’t find me in the coming days you’ll know where to look.  Or, more precisely, you won’t.  I’ll be out there, somewhere over the next horizon, out in the great unknown, searching for weird things, Atlas Obscura in hand to guide me.

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Is Atlas Obscura the Greatest Idea Ever?

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