Sunday, October 25, 2015

Reflections on "don't break the chain"

For about 1 month I tried writing up one idea per day on this blog. This was largely a selfish task, a way to get some ideas down that had been swimming around my head and distracting me. I find that once I do this they stop diverting my attention, and it allows me to start working toward an implementation or something actionable (these are also the main reasons I use TODO lists, Wunderlist being my current favorite).

I was also testing the Seinfeld "don't break the chain" productivity approach.

Some observations

  • The biggest problem with the "uninterrupted chain" approach is that blog writing represents only a small fraction of my overall writing output, and my writing output is itself only a small fraction of my overall work output. I think that writing something everyday is key, but writing up new ideas is probably less useful than working on papers or posts that communicate the technical work I am doing. Perhaps I need a "meta-calendar" that would allow me to string together days that I write in any forum for a particular audience. For example, I should probably keep an academic writing calendar separate from a calendar keeping track of public-facing posts.
  • Writing new ideas in a public forum is tricky when you have to worry about patent issues, which is yet another reason why the patent system is so badly broken.
  • Writing a new idea every day is a good forcing factor, but it might be better to linger on particularly good ideas for a few days. In this spirit I am planning to return to some of my posts and beef them up a bit with mock-ups.
  • It is much more fun to write when you aren't too worried about related work. I think in academia the literature survey can be a terrible, idea-quashing instrument. Sure, somebody probably did something like your thing at PARC in 1992, but it is best to take a few minutes to get your idea down first. Almost certainly yours has some novel components, and it might be more than that. At worst, you've lost just a few minutes of your time, and as time wasters go writing down ideas isn't so bad.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Asynchronous, multimedia email

This is actually a very old idea, but it is remarkable we don't see it yet. It would be useful to record video snippets via webcam (or screencapture) and send them in a threadable conversation the same way we do email. Such a tool would also be a useful compliment to video conferencing tools (especially when connectivity makes synchronous sharing impossible).

Why isn't this a thing? With modern speech-to-text, the content would be searchable. Bandwidth isn't really an issue. Is it only reception? Reading a screen is easier (and more socially acceptable) than listening to a series of clips (if you don't have headphones). Is that all?

Patent mashups

So many patents are simply combinations of previous ideas, I wonder if you could build a tool that generates new patents, or new ideas at least, by intelligently selecting claims to combine together. Of course, glomming claims together willy-nilly won't provide much value, so the tool would need to learn combinations that are rational.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Compounding knowledge?

This fascinating piece on animal intelligence adds to the growing body of work suggesting that human intelligence is different from animals only by a matter of "degree, not kind." If we admit that, though, we must also admit that, at least at this point in history, overall human production is different from animals in kind. One way to reconcile these two conclusions is the theory that human intelligence is different precisely in that it facilitates knowledge compounding over time. Just like a small initial difference in an investment can turn into a large difference after many years of compounding interest, so too can an incremental difference in intelligence eventually lead to a vast difference in achievement (for the moment, I'm setting aside the issue of whether this achievement is good or bad).

This line of reasoning, though, could lead one to something like the Singularity: if human abilities are growing exponentially then eventually they reach a near-infinite level. I think this conclusion is largely a fallacy of metaphor. Closer to the truth is that humans compound knowledge at different rates in different domains. The phones in our pockets run as fast as supercomputers did only decades ago, but we've still not put anyone on Mars (or even returned to the Moon, for that matter). Or to use a more mundane example: besides the ubiquity of mobile devices the interiors of homes are largely unchanged over the last 60 years.

Perhaps it is best to say that human ability is an irregular field whose area is monotonically increasing.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Solid data on firearms

This one is short, sweet, completely obvious, not novel, yet somehow incredibly difficult.

Regardless of what side of the debate you're on, we've got to have more data on gun use in the US.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Education is reputation

The term disruption is hackneyed in Silicon Valleyyet there are a few massive bureaucracies that do seem dearly in need of it but that are stubbornly resistant to change. The medical-insurance complex is one, but the sheer amount of money involved coupled with massive legal hurdles at least makes its resilience understandable.

Academia less so. While any bureaucracy has significant political power as well as legal and fiscal interests, they would seem less pronounced in academia than in e.g. medicine. I don't quite understand the glue that keeps it together. These experiences of a university math lecturer are a typical refrain of a system creaking under a terrible weight of bureaucracy, with its in-fighting, internal power struggles, and political gambits taking a front seat to intellectualism.

Probably most of the glue is in reputation networks. This implies that new educational ventures should cooperatively leverage established systems.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Better tools for everyday capture and sharing

With the near ubiquity of GoPro cameras, this feels like a solved problem. But I don't think we are quite there yet. I think that what people most want is a way to record and share their own experiences without having to think about technology at all. This would require not only capture devices and software capable of taking high quality shots, but also automated filtering and rendering algorithms (either pre- or post-capture). The tool should also focus on photos, quick videos, and animated PNGs.

20th century critiques of photography often centered on its unnaturalness. As Sontag and others wrote, it has a way of freezing something in time so that the photographer can gain control of the moment. There may be some truth in this, but we now know that these type of critiques are largely beside the point, which is that the network is at least as important, if not more so, than the photograph itself. This is because the value of a photograph is more about providing others with some context about your situation than it is documenting moments for one's own sake. It is for this reason that longer video is not as useful: it is harder for others to consume (and, again, harder on the network). This also implies that volume can quickly make photographs useless because, again, a recipient can't be expected to sift through a massive archive.

If the main focus is on sharing, then this also implies that quality is somewhat less important. At least, it implies that the bar might be low enough for automated techniques to have a chance.

One key problem is the capture device itself. Drones are problematic for many reasons, not the last of which is that they are likely to be illegal in many outdoor (and indoor) settings. GoPros are close, but are probably too cumbersome for most activities. We need something like a panoramic camera that can be attached flexibly to equipment or clothing that will take photos at an extremely high resolution, and coupled with an automated editing process that will create a personalized and relatively terse archive of photos and animations selected from portions of the panorama at key moments.

Finally, many automated techniques focus on creating a narrative of an event, I doubt this is necessary. I think people just want to feel like they've captured and communicated the gist of an event (in a way that makes them look good, if possible ;)