Rewiring the Brain

Mon Nov 14, 2011 by brett

There is an absolutely awesome bit of Neal Stephenson’s book Reamde, that goes like this: The brain “was sort of like the electrical system of Mogadishu. A whole lot was going on in Mogadishu that required copper wire for conveyance of power and information, but there was only so much copper to go around, and so what wasn’t being actively used tended to get pulled down by militias and taken crosstown to beef up some power-hungry warlord’s private, improvised power network. As with copper in Mogadishu, so with neurons in the brain. The brains of people who did unbelievably boring shit for a living showed dark patches in the zones responsible for job-related processes, since all those almost-never-exercised neurons got pulled down and trucked somewhere else and used to beef up the circuits used to keep track of NCAA tournament brackets and celebrity makeovers.”

In the post “Your brain vs technology: How our wired world is changing the way we think”, Baroness Susan Greenfield is quoted, professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford: “If the human brain is exquisitely adapted to the environment, which it is, if the environment is changing, which it is, then it’s a given the brain will change”. She is concerned by how our brain changes as a result of increasingly spending our time in front of technology, that areas of the cortex may be going dark as we spend our lives immersed in Big Brother and Facebook.

It seems to me that in order to get good things out of our interactions with technology, we should focus on how we can use our screen time to exercise areas of our brain in ways that wouldn’t normally happen.

A good example of this was a recent post on Scientific American called “In the mind of others - Reading fiction can strengthen your social ties and even change your personality”. This article is about research that indicates how reading fiction may help social interaction by building experience on how to interact with other people, without physically interacting with other people. As people empathise with characters in the book and those characters relate to other characters in the story, they build up this mental database on how to behave. This mental database helps with later, “meat-space” interactions.

I remember reading related work on using virtual reality to overcome phobias through repeatedly experiencing a fear-inducing situation in a safe, virtual environment.

Is it just our thinking and behaviour we can affect through computer interaction? The BBC had a news story about how a virtual gym could help with weight loss which suggests that maybe our virtual experiences also affect our body. What are the limits for this? This sounds like a wonderful area to explore. How can we re-wire the brain in beneficial ways using our computers?

The Weirdness of Equity Markets

Thu Nov 10, 2011 by brett

Equity markets constantly surprise me. It’s looking increasingly likely that the Eurozone will disintegrate - leading to potential bank failures, stagnant economic growth and increased unemployment - and the equity markets here in Europe are pretty much shrugging it off today. The FTSE100 is up over half-a-percent at pixel time.

It’s like the equity participants are saying to themselves “Well, we had a down day yesterday, so it must have been oversold, right?”. During the last financial crisis it was like that as well. There would be a big fall one day, and then the stocks would rally somewhat, and then another big fall… rinse and repeat.

Maybe everyone is afraid of missing out on the bottom. Don’t worry - I think it’ll be a while before you have to worry about that.

What's in your honey, honey?

Wed Nov 9, 2011 by brett

I just read this fascinating article from Food Safety News about honey. I had no idea that honey was such a dirty business!

Apparently over 75% of honey sold in US grocery stores isn’t strictly “honey”. It’s been “ultra-filtered”, a process that removes the natural pollen from the honey. A process whose only purpose appears to be to disguise the origin of the honey.

There are laboratories in the US that can determine the origin of honey by the different pollen contained within it. By ultra-filtering the honey, it becomes impossible to determine where the honey came from.

Ultra-filtering involves heating the honey, potentially watering it down, and then forcing it through extremely fine filters to remove the pollen.

The process appears to have sprung from the high tariffs imposed on China’s honey producers in 2001 that were aimed at protecting the local US honey industry. The Chinese producers responded by ultra-filtering the honey and transshipping it through other countries without the tariffs - changing labels to hide the originating country in the meantime.

A fascinating insight into a small, dark corner of the food industry.


Wed Nov 9, 2011 by brett

I was browsing a list of tools and services for a lean startup a couple of days ago, when I noticed that many of tools implement a Kanban methodology. I had never heard of Kanban, so I took a quite trip over to Wikipedia.

“Kanban is a method for developing products with an emphasis on just-in-time delivery while not overloading the developers”. Hmmmm, that sounds good. Upon further reading, I realised that this is the methodology that the introductary video at Trello was aimed towards. I have been playing around with Trello for a couple of weeks, but hadn’t really got my head around how best to apply it.

My curiosity was piqued, so I went and bought one of the seminal books on applying Kanban to the agile software development process - Kanban, by David Anderson.

In the book, David talks about applying 5 principles to the software development process:

  1. Visualize the workflow. This is the benefit that Trello brings to the process.

  2. Limit Work in Progress. This means that work is “pulled” from another part of the workflow, when it is needed.

  3. Manage Flow. The flow of work through the system needs to be quantitatively analysed.

  4. Make Process Policies Explicit.

  5. Improve Collaboratively.

It’s definitely a methodology I’ll be trying to apply to my own startups.

World's Best Bars 2011

Tue Nov 8, 2011 by brett

The list of the top 50 bars in the world have been announced by Drinks International.

London is represented very well, with 5 of the top 10 bars. 12 of the top 50 bars are based over here. For comparison, 8 of the top 50 are based in New York, and 3 of the top 50 are based in Paris. 69 Colebrooke Row came 7th, which is about 2 blocks from our flat.

Top 50 Bars in the World, 2011

  1. PDT, New York

  2. Connaught, London

  3. Artesian, London

  4. Death & Co, New York

  5. Milk & Honey, London

  6. American Bar at the Savoy, London

  7. 69 Colebrooke Row, London

  8. Drink, Boston US

  9. Harry’s New York Bar, Paris

  10. Black Pearl, Melbourne, Australia

  11. Pegu Club, New York

  12. Dry Martini Bar, Barcelona

  13. Eau De Vie, Sydney

  14. Bramble, Edinburgh

  15. Employees Only, New York

  16. La Capilla Bar, Mexico

  17. Merchant Hotel, Belfast

  18. Nightjar, London

  19. Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco

  20. Buddha Bar, Paris

  21. Skyview Bar, Dubai

  22. The Varnish, Los Angeles

  23. Tippling Club, Singapore

  24. Milk & Honey, New York

  25. 878 Bar, Buenos Aires

  26. Der Raum, Melbourne

  27. Callooh Callay, London

  28. Clover Club, New York

  29. Door74, Amsterdam

  30. Tommy’s, San Francisco

  31. Floridita, Havana

  32. City Space, Moscow

  33. Matterhorn, Wellington, NZ

  34. High Five Bar, Tokyo

  35. Le Lion, Hamburg

  36. LAB, London

  37. Boadas, Barcelona

  38. Dutch Kills, New York

  39. Worship St Whistling Shop, London

  40. BarAgricole, San Francisco

  41. Papa Doble, Montpellier

  42. Quo Vadis, London

  43. Lounge Bohemia, London

  44. Mayahuel, New York

  45. Mutis, Barcelona

  46. Ruby, Copenhagen

  47. Rules, London

  48. Hemingway Bar, Paris

  49. Zuma, Dubai

  50. Star Bar, Tokyo

Were the Luddites Right?

Mon Nov 7, 2011 by brett

The Luddites were a 19th century anti-industrialisation movement (and militia), who believed that their jobs were at risk because of the industrialisation of manufacturing. They proceeded to try and destroy mechanical looms in a vain attempt to turn back the rising tide of industrialisation. These days anyone seen as a “Luddite” is perceived to be backward and anti-technology.

But were the Luddites right about the consequences of technological progress? The Luddite Fallacy states that the argument that technological progress decreases the amount of jobs is fallacious, because increases in productivity does not mean that employers will keep their production constant. Rather, employers will increase their production to suit available demand.

The Economist has a post that points out that the Luddite Fallacy is only a fallacy as long as new technology increases capital, without reducing the need for human labour. But what happens if technology increases the capital and replaces the need for unskilled human labour?

The Luddites may have been a revolution or two short of the mark, springing from the industrial rather than the computer revolution, but maybe they weren’t wrong about the long-term consequences of technological progress, believing that it would destroy jobs, and cause greater income inequality. Smashing the looms is obviously not a solution to the socio-economic problems of the structural changes to our society, but neither is burying our heads in the sand.

Race Against The Machine

Sun Nov 6, 2011 by brett

I just finished reading the Kindle book Race Against The Machine, a book I thoroughly recommend. This was the driver of the NPR article I blogged about recently.

The book is mostly oriented towards the US, although the issues they discuss seem to be prevalent across all major economies. The authors make the case that technological improvements are severely impacting every job market except those for highly-skilled individuals.

They argue, as I have argued, that the current employment crisis is caused by structural factors such as increased productivity due to technology, rather than cyclical or stagnation factors. We are simply living in a world where the educated and skilled are able to contribute to the economy in a disproportionate way, and the less educated/skilled are forced to compete for the fewer and fewer jobs that are currently too expensive to automate. This leads to money flowing from the workers to the owners of the business, which is an unsustainable situation for the long term.

The authors point out that to a large extent, we operate in a “winner take all” society. Technology enables the best and fastest-moving in the business to capture the bulk of a market. That in turn provides a strong incentive for those with capital to further invest in technology, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Not only is this situation self-perpetuating, but increased capital allows winners a disproportionate advantage in the race to take advantage of another business opportunity.

The positive news is that as we use technology to expand the frontiers of innovation, this will in turn create an exponential increase in the possibilities for further innovation.

Blogging Process

Sat Nov 5, 2011 by brett

I have been meaning to blog more for ages. I have had a blog on the internet since early 1990 in one form or other, but I just tend to do sporadic blogging. Every so often I get fired up with communicating and write some blog posts, and then my enthusiam wanes for a while, and my writing tails off.

Throughout 2011 though, I have written a paragraph each and every day in my iPhone. Kind of a mini-diary. It’s been the longest period of regular writing that I have ever had. The factor that’s made me write regularly for so long is that I put a repeating reminder in my iPhone. At 4:45pm each day my phone rings a bell, which reminds me that I need to write down my Momento for the day.

Now I’m trying to apply this same technique to my blogging - setting aside a time to write, and writing a blog post each day.

Capturing Information

I use Evernote to capture information throughout the day, especially interesting articles I read online. Within Safari, I can highlight the text I want to capture, press Cmd-C to copy it, and then press Ctrl-Cmd-V to paste it to a new note in Evernote. It’s fast, and it also saves the URL for attribution

Emacs - org-mode and markdown

When I’m ready to write, I start off by creating a directory to write in. In fact, I have an Emacs function that creates the directory for me, along with an org-mode file, and a markdown file. The org-mode file is where I write the skeleton of the post, and the markdown file is where I write the prose. Here is the emacs lisp code that sets me up for blogging:

  2. (defvar bh-blog-article-dir (expand-file-name "~/Dropbox/docs/blog-posts"))
  4. (defun bh-blog-article-start ()
  5. (interactive)
  6. (let ((topic-name (read-string "Topic: "))
  7. (post-dir nil)
  8. )
  9. (setq base-post-topic (mapconcat (function (lambda (x) x)) (split-string topic-name) "-"))
  10. (setq post-dir (concat bh-blog-article-dir "/" (format-time-string "%Y%m%d") "-" base-post-topic))
  11. (make-directory post-dir)
  12. (find-file (concat post-dir "/" base-post-topic ".org"))
  13. (find-file-other-window (concat post-dir "/" base-post-topic ".md"))
  14. )
  15. )


When a post is ready to be uploaded, I have a Python script that converts the markdown file to HTML format, extracts the first H1 heading in the HTML to use as the post title, and then uploads the post to my blog.

Written by Robot

Fri Nov 4, 2011 by brett

I’ve just read two blog posts on creating written content programatically. The first was the article How I automated my writing career by Robbie Allen. This article gives a brief description of how the author’s company generates web-site content automatically using the quantitative analysis of data.

The second blog post is about generating a Monty Python parody using markov chains. Even though the code is very simple, it generates very convincing nonsense!

How long will it be before the prose in our stories, the plots on our TV series, the lyrics in our songs are all machine generated?

Rage against the machine

Thu Nov 3, 2011 by brett

NPR has a story about How Technology Is Eliminating Higher-Skill Jobs. It features IBM’s Watson System, that can beat the world’s best human Jeopardy competitors. This technology is currently being used to automate the fields of law and medicine, so a lot of very technical jobs will disappear from some quite high-paying and respected professions.

Rather than rage against the machine, I think we need to embrace it. The survivors of the infopocalypse will be those who leverage the technology. Bring on that A.I. augmentation! I’m not sure what the socio-economic/political consequences will be if the trend for increasing unemployment continues. I am sure that we can’t stuff that genie back in the bottle, and our society will need to adjust accordingly.