Posts tagged ‘Software’

October 14th, 2013


I am fascinated by algorithms. How can one not be fascinated by them? We live increasingly in a world driven by algorithms and defined by them, from the news stories that are “recommended” to us, to the movies/music/books we might like based on some mutual selections of others (whether those people are known to us or not), down to what washing machines or shoes could be right for us, again based on our own history of choices and those of others.

We also cannot forget social connections: the people we should like (virtually) or know (theoretically) again based on the massive, algorithmic mapping of our utterances (Twitter) or existing networks of friends (Facebook). Even this description is an oversimplification; much has been written about Google’s propensity for “guessing” what we are looking for, based on just the first few letters of a search query.

All of this matters, no question. We should be concerned, if not exactly afraid: along with the algorithms go massive amounts of data that power them, all of it data about us. I am concerned, and I do care, and consider myself to have taken a mid-level precautions. My browser’s “do not track” feature is enabled, and it is also set to reject third-party cookies. I’m running and AdBlockPlus, along with Flashblock (great for controlling what Flash content loads on a page). And I have various other security tools installed, too. All of this tries to balance the desirability of some algorithmic knowing-ness with too much invasion of privacy.

Blah, blah, blah.

The fact is that all these algorithmic systems are deeply flawed. For all the data, for all the computer processing power, for all the back-end and front-end systems, they still make mistakes or create connections that can only look humorous to an actual human brain. Over the last year, I have been collecting some of these–let’s call them creative connections. A sampling of them is displayed below. And if you don’t find them as obviously funny as I do, well: that may also speak to the capacity for differences between human well beyond the mere bits and bytes of computerized logic.

May 8th, 2012

Book Juggling in Mid-Air

I’m writing this at 37,000 feet (36,988 to be precise), presently somewhere over Iowa. Moments earlier, I downloaded volume one and two of the collected works of Ambrose Bierce from Project Guttenberg onto my iPad, thanks to the inflight wifi on Virgin Atlantic.

And you’re thinking: Ambrose Bierce? Yes. Reading a review of a new edition of his “Devil’s Dictionary” in The New York Review of Books convinced me that his stories from the Civil War sound like must-read material. Now I have them, and you can too. (I’ll let you know if the stories meet the hype.)

The thing is: I’m a book junkie. I am not entirely agnostic on the question of e-books versus the old-fashioned kind (though my views are, you might say, “evolving”), but I am certainly pragmatic. It will take me years, possibly decades, to approach the level of well-read-ness I would like. And much like the survivalist hoarders who build bunkers with freeze-dried food to last 99 years, one thing I am sure of is that I won’t run out of reading material in this lifetime. I am more than ok with that, and e-books may help with the “space permitting” portion of the equation.

Now I can read Bierce–literally, right now. If I like the stories, I may invest in a hard copy, the kind my children will be able to pick up and read for themselves in a few years, when iPads are gone and we are all on to the next big thing–which may or may not be better for books than the current set of e-readers.

UPDATE, somewhere over Wisconsin/Michigan: Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an amazing short story. Totally captivating! Five stars! Read it–for free!

February 14th, 2012

Getting Shit Done

It’s taken a few years, but I can now pinpoint the single biggest obstacle to getting shit done—and I am ready to reveal my secret.

In writing this, I think it is important to say that I consider myself generally to be an organized person. My bills get paid on time, client goals and projects are accomplished, and my consumption of a diverse range of media sources continues to enliven and enrich my life. I am a devoted user of Evernote, the single best note-taking and information-tracking tool I have found, and at the same time I also love my old-fashioned jotter, which fits in a pocket and doesn’t require any batteries (and can be “recharged” with Post-It notes, which are both thinner and cheaper than the index card inserts it comes with). While I am not formally a follower of David Allen and his “Getting Things Done” movement, I admire the concept and track some of the information sources in related spheres, such as Lifehacker.

However, my understanding of the impact of all these things on my life—together with two small children and a working spouse with her own set of needs and demands—has started to crystallize a little differently of late. In a pre-digital age, daily life could produce enough junk to overwhelm, just on its own. With email, the web, social media tools, and more options for tracking content and ideas and tasks than one can shake a stick at, “overwhelmed” can seen like an underwhelming description.

Fundamentally, though, I am not convinced that the volume of relevant information is that much greater than it ever was; the problem is determining relevance quickly—and then moving on. Thus, the single biggest challenge to efficiency? Procrastination.

For me, what I have noticed (in particular since my July 2009 about-face and decision to embrace Facebook and Twitter) is that there are two consistent—and generally well-meaning—procrastination zones that create problems, one as information is coming in, and the other as I’m pushing it out.

To address the problem in the first zone requires focus a heavier focus on relevance, and an effort to control (or curtail) digressions. This is the area where Facebook and Twitter can cause mayhem, along with all the things one needs to do for work (if not properly organized) or at home (like the non-tax-related papers one encounters on the way to doing one’s taxes).

The second zone demands a high-intensity focus on information management, managing both the flow of materials and the (rapidly proliferating) new toys tools to help get things done. For instance, I have been contemplating switching my meetings to a psychiatrist-style 50-minute hour, (or a 25 minute half-hour) in order to guarantee time between activities, during which I can write down or assign tasks, file papers, respond to email, etc. It’s the delaying of these small tasks that often create larger and more complicated tasks hours or days later.

There is no doubt that sometimes procrastination and digression can be beneficial; it is during this time that the stimulation of creativity and free associations can help solve problems or come up with new ideas. But digressions in the digital age seem are much worse, it seems: it’s too easy never to turn things off, to keep going, link by link, from dawn to dusk and back again.

And that’s fine, as long as it isn’t stopping you from doing what you need to do.

July 10th, 2011

Not My Ethan Lewis Problem

My friend Ethan Lewis recently wrote a post for his blog about his ranking as an Ethan Lewis within Google’s search results, and it’s interesting reading for a few reasons. First of all, I think Ethan should be congratulated for openly writing about something that many of us probably do, but as many of us don’t want to talk about. (“Ego-surfing,” he calls it, sourcing the term to Wikipedia.)

On the other hand, Ethan’s post has the benefit of suggesting that people should do this sort of thing—and I can say, from the perspective of a recruiter for my firm, that an amazing number of people seem not to Google themselves, or to have any awareness at all of how the internet represents them.

But Ethan gets to a more interesting question when he writes about understanding Google’s page ranking algorithms, and his desire to wind up on top just by being himself. No “SEO” or “search engine optimization” techniques—which is good, because much of this is pay-for-link spam, a curse of the web. He wants to be the number one Ethan Lewis on Google just by virtue of being, well, the number one Ethan Lewis. That seems to me to be a reasonable ambition.

Still, I think boosting Ethan Lewis to number one might, by necessity, require a few small and entirely natural (i.e., not SEO-type) changes. We know that search engines look at incoming and outgoing links, and about the ranking for pages on both sides. The system is mutually reinforcing, which is why link spam works (until the algorithms are tweaked to eliminate it… until it pops up again…). So one idea might be for Ethan to pull his Icarus P. Anybody blog into his domain name, perhaps with a subfolder or sub-domain. (I highly recommend WordPress for this. Blogger stopped supporting FTP publishing, and I made the switch very easily.) While I appreciate the origins of the blog’s name, it does kind of work against natural identification with Ethan himself. And, anyway, the name wouldn’t have to change—just the web address.

There’s also the Google Profiles tool, which lets people set up specific profiles within Google itself. Now that doesn’t guarantee visibility, and Ethan has a profile of sorts through Blogger—but the Blogger profile probably doesn’t get a whole lot of visibility, whereas Google’s maneuvers into the people/profile business might help. Getting a LinkedIn profile is another useful approach.

Of course, Ethan also wrote: “Another thing that affects my ego-surfing is that I want to be the top result on Google when searching for “Ethan Lewis”, but I don’t want to do any work to get there.” So the above suggestions might sound like work. I suppose there’s some truth to that.

And then you just have to ask: will my writing this post for my friend Ethan Lewis, with links to his website and his blog, help boost his ranking? Maybe. But he didn’t pay me to do it.

Update: I posted this entry, and then I sat down to read the paper. Yes, the actual newspaper. The New York Times‘ business section has a story today–another in its great “Haggler” series, by David Segal–about Google search results and a number of “lead generation” companies that have figured out how to scam the results, specifically in the locksmith business. “Picking the Lock of Google’s Search” is worth reading, especially in light of the above. And meanwhile, in what is presumably an oversight on the part of the Times’ web editors, there’s no link to Ballard Lock & Key, the subject of their story, so I’m including one here. Small consolation, no doubt.