Archive for February, 2011

The Future of Computing (Then) – The Internet of Things

Computing is no longer about a massive server sitting in a special purpose room, with PCs connected to it via a local network.  Nowadays, computing is everywhere and in everything.  Ordinary items (white good consumer items, motor vehicles, etc etc) all have computing power within them.  Increasingly, this computing power also incorporates network connectivity (typically, of a wireless kind).

The future of living is about things in our environment all talking to each other and to our applications.  Think solar power and electricity generation and consumption – all monitored and controlled using computer enabled “things”.

As an example, consider GreenGoose.  From their website (and other sources):

“Sensors measure actions you take to reach goals that you select. They’re wireless, battery-powered, and all a little different.  The exercise sensor is the size of a credit card and slips into your wallet, purse or backback. The others are stickers that you just stick on to things like a water-bottle, toothbrush or floss.  You stick these sensors on your bike, thermostat, showerhead “and even your keychain”.  Each one measures a different thing you do, but they all communicate with the same egg-sized base-station.  They communicate with a gateway you plug into your broadband router. Installation takes less than five minutes and you can do it yourself.  GreenGoose lets you set simple lifestyle goals. Track your own progress automatically with sensors.  Earn lifestyle points the more often you do things. Bonus points for consistency.  Share or exchange points with other applications, or partners offering rewards – or even an allowance for kids.  Eventually this type of connection, between sensors and mainstream services like banking, will be commonplace and probably won’t need to rely on gimmicks such as green eggs. But for now, Green Goose seems like a cute, interesting Internet of Things service for green conscious early adopters to try out.”

Basically, GreenGoose is all about connecting various things (typically exercise type things) together into the (computing) network, such that activity is automatically measured and recorded – and then used for other purposes (in this instance, rewarding oneself for the completion of exercise activity).

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Email Tone

Re-posted (with some additional comments) from http://the99percent.com/tips/6991/Email-Etiquette-II-Why-Emoticons-%28And-Emotional-Cues%29-Work, with kind regards.

[According to Daniel] Goleman, author of Social Intelligence and godfather of the field of Emotional Intelligence, … there’s a negativity bias to email – at the neural level. In other words, if an email’s content is neutral, we assume the tone is negative.  In face-to-face conversation, the subject matter and its emotional content is enhanced by tone of voice, facial expressions, and nonverbal cues.  Not so with digital communication.  Technology creates a vacuum that we humans fill with negative emotions by default, and digital emotions can escalate quickly (see: flame wars).  The barrage of email can certainly fan the flames.  In an effort to be productive and succinct, our communication may be perceived as clipped, sarcastic, or rude.  Imagine the repercussions for creative collaboration.

Tools are already emerging to address this phenomenon.  See ToneCheck, a “tone spellcheck” app that scans emails for negativity and then helpfully suggests tweaks to make your communication more positive (featured in The New York Times Magazine’s annual Year in Ideas issue).

[The following are some] simple ways to encourage positive digital communication … :

1. Heed the negativity bias. In this case, awareness and attention goes a long way. Consider how your communication may be perceived. Can you be more explanatory? Is your language positive as opposed to neutral?

2. Pay attention to your grammar. [When writing emails in haste (and sometimes not)], meaning is often obscured by simple grammatical confusion. “That’s not what I meant” is emblematic of digital miscommunication, and can escalate a problem quickly. Re-read your emails before sending, and make sure your intended message is being conveyed clearly.

3. Consider emoticons. Until keyboards can actually perceive the emotional content of our digital messages (not so far off!), emoticons may be the simplest method of clarifying tone. … let go of [the] … perception that emoticons are silly. They may currently be our best tool for elevating the emotional clarity of digital messages.

4. Use phrasing that suggests optionality. Email is not a great medium for delivering criticism, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. If you want your message to be well-received, try using phrasing that empowers the receiver. Questions in particular tend to be better received than declaratives (which can seem accusatory). If you’ve noticed a team member overlooked a task, you might email them: “Are you planning to take care of that issue?” Rather than making them feel put upon, you give them agency. [Mind you, a severe questioning tone can be even more detrimental than a direct statement of fact (as long as that statement is phrased “nicely”).  The message here is to think very carefully as to the appropriate phrasing for the situation at hand.]

5. Start things off on the right foot. When the news is mixed, consider leading off your message with an expression of appreciation. Then follow with the meat of your response. It could be something as simple as, “We’re off to a great start, I just have a few small tweaks I want to suggest.” Such gestures may seem like fluff, but they set the tone. Effectively saying “I appreciate the work you’ve already done…” prior to bringing the feedback that means “back to the drawing board!” [And then follow up the “meat” of the email with another statement of praise or appreciation.  If possible, different from the one which started the email.  Make the praise and appreciation sincere – not a “cardboard facsimile” of emotion (that will just inflame the situation).].

6. Jettison email… maybe. Ask yourself, “Is email the best carrier of this message?” Often a more social communication tool such as an internal project management space or messaging tool (Yammer, Action Method, or Mavenlink) can be more appropriate and serve as an emotional buffer. Reactive communication tends to be more measured in a public digital space. Plus an added bonus: knowledge sharing. [Except, be very very careful about posting any direct one-on-one and personal feedback and communication on social sites.  Social sites, and especially short message sites, suffer from the same problems as email, sometimes even more so – because they will typically be read by many more people, and probably read by people who do not have the same context surrounding the situation as maybe the two individuals involved in the email.  There are many situations where what appeared to be a simple communication on a shared social site was badly misinterpreted and caused “all-out warfare” on a project.  Finally, don’t forget that digital communication is the only means of communicating.  The telephone still works.  And so do face-to-face meetings (although,m it is admitted, that with today’s global business, face-to-face meetings may be rather too expensive or not even possible).  Make sure you keep the NLP Presupposition always in mind: “We are always communicating, in all channels”.  Think of the means of communication that would be best for the purposes, before attempting the communication.].

***
Because of the lack of emotional tone in emails, we often have to go the extra mile to convey a solicitous attitude  – whether it’s rewriting a sentence, adding an emoticon, or offsetting bad news with a positive remark.  Even if it seems a chore, it’s time well spent.

In the immortal words of a recent 99% commenter: Don’t treat others like a “DO IT” button, treat them like human beings.

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IBM Watson and Jeopardy

IBM’s Thomas J Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY has recently completed a new grand challenge – to program a computer to play the quiz game “Jeopardy”.

I have been following this (as have many many other people) – and it has been absolutely fascinating.
This link (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bifUJCyMwI) to a youtube of the final session should also give you links to the previous sessions over the 3 days. The link to details of Watson (http://www-943.ibm.com/innovation/us/watson/) will no doubt also give you the relevant video links, and much more.  More information can also be read at Mashable in an article on Watson and interview with Stephen Baker.

Basically, IBM have developed a natural language processing and deep analytic question and answer system, using massively parallel processing and huge amounts of memory (as stated here: 2880 processor cores in 90 Power 750 computers and 15 terabytes of RAM) to implement a system which can answer any sort of general knowledge question (which have been asked in a variety of ways, including through association, analogy, puns, etc), and to get so many correct that Watson totally beat the best human players.

The results were fascinating.

At the end of the first day, Ken Jennings was on $4,800, Brad Rutter was on $10,400 but Watson was a massive $35,734 (I also answered the questions as they appeared on the screen and achieved $22,400 – although one can not completely equate the results, since the physical presence of having to press the button first when the light comes on and then answer was not the same for me watching it on a computer screen).

At the end of the second and final day, Brad scored $5,600 before final jeopardy, wagered the lot to obtain $11,200 which totaled him $21,600 over the 2 days.

Ken did much better on the second day, managing a pre-final jeopardy score of $18,200 but only wagered $1,000 to finish with $19,200, to total $24,000 for the 2 days.

But Watson. Well, he (since we can really be anthropomorphic here) scored $23,440 before final jeopardy, wagered $17,973 to make his daily score $41,413 and a massive total of $77,147 for the 2 days.

(By the way, I managed $14,000 for the second day, wagered the lot and got the final jeopardy answer correct (it was Bram Stoker) to finish with $28,000 on the day and $50,400 over the 2 days).

The prize money of $1,000,000 awarded to Watson was donated by IBM to World Vision and to the World Community Grid, whereas half the second prize of $300,000 (to Ken) and $200,000 (to Brad) was donated to other charities.

Two important take-aways from this brilliant piece of research.

Firstly, this technology from IBM has so so many uses – not just in the medical field (as the first offerings appear to be) but also in the energy and resources fields, the urban planning fields, and certainly in the legal and justice fields. The ability to ingest natural language materials (such as legislation, case law, briefs, submissions, depositions, statements, judgments and miscellaneous other materials) and then to answer complicated questions concerning that material (and link to associated material not previously related to the matter) will be extremely important in the future.

Secondly, IBM Watson was truly amazing. Certainly a breakthrough in technology. But the human beings standing there, that did pretty well against the massive machine, were still, themselves, rather incredible. Humans, in essence, are still mighty powerful. The Jeopardy show had to be filmed on a special set built in the IBM Research Facility, because the computer system comprising Watson took up a whole room and was too massive to move. Whereas Ken and Brad simply walked into where ever they were needed and did their thing. Mind you, computer systems in the 1960’s and 1970’s took whole rooms – and their capability would now be eclipsed by an iPad or small notebook computer. Twenty years from now, Watson will definitely be in the palm of one’s hand (in one form or another).

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Achieving Long Term Goals

There is a lot written in Pop-Psy (pop psychology) sites, journals, magazines, books and elsewhere about how to go about achieving one’s goals, especially longer term goals (for instance, life goals etc).  Unfortunately, many of the suggestions do not work, and sometimes, are positively detrimental.  The PsyBlog has an excellent article (see reference at the foot of this post) outlining actual research on what and what does not.  In summary:

What Works! What Doesn’t!
Make a step-by-step plan. Motivate yourself by focusing on someone who has achieved a similar goal.
Tell other people about your goal. Think about bad things that will happen if you do not achieve your goal.
Think about the good things that will happen if you achieve your goal. Try to suppress unhelpful or negative thoughts about your goal and how to achieve it.
Reward yourself for making progress in your goal. Rely on willpower.
Record your progress. Fantasize or visualize how great your life will be when you achieve your goal.

To recapitulate, the techniques to use in order to achieve (longer term) goals are as follows:

  • Make a step-by-step plan: break your goal down into concrete, measurable and time-based sub-goals;
  • Tell other people about your goal: making a public declaration increases motivation;
  • Think about the good things that will happen if you achieve your goal (but avoid fantasizing);
  • Reward yourself for making progress in your goal: small rewards help push us on to major successes;
  • Record your progress: keep a journal, graph or drawing that plots your progress.

Further references and sources of selected materials:

  • http://www.spring.org.uk/2011/02/reaching-life-goals-which-strategies-work.php
  • http://www.spring.org.uk/2011/01/how-to-commit-to-a-goal.php
  • http://www.spring.org.uk/2011/01/success-why-expectations-beat-fantasies.php

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Procrastination

With kind regards to PsyBlog (see http://www.spring.org.uk/2011/02/the-zeigarnik-effect.php) … (PS – you should subscribe – it is an excellent resource) …

The Zeigarnik Effect

Post image for The Zeigarnik Effect

What can waiters, the TV series ‘Lost’ and the novelist Charles Dickens teach us about avoiding procrastination?

One of the simplest methods for beating procrastination in almost any task was inspired by busy waiters.

It’s called the Zeigarnik effect after a Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik (above left), who noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna. The waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being served. When completed, the orders evaporated from their memory.

Zeigarnik went back to the lab to test out a theory about what was going on. She asked participants to do twenty or so simple little tasks in the lab, like solving puzzles and stringing beads (Zeigarnik, 1927). Except some of the time they were interrupted half way through the task. Afterwards she asked them which activities they remembered doing. People were about twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed.

What does this have to do with procrastination? I’ll give you another clue…

Almost sixty years later Kenneth McGraw and colleagues carried out another test of the Zeigarnik effect (McGraw et al., 1982). In it participants had to do a really tricky puzzle; except they were interrupted before any of them could solve it and told the study was over. Despite this nearly 90% carried on working on the puzzle anyway.

Got it yet?

Cliffhanger

Here’s another clue: one of the oldest tricks in the TV business for keeping viewers tuned in to a serial week after week is the cliffhanger. The hero seems to have fallen off a mountain but the shot cuts away before you can be sure. And then those fateful words: “TO BE CONTINUED…” Literally a cliffhanger.

You tune in next week for the resolution because the mystery is ticking away in the back of your mind.

The great English novelist Charles Dickens used exactly the same technique. Many of his works, like Oliver Twist, although later published as complete novels, were originally serialised.

His cliffhangers created such anticipation in people’s minds that his American readership would wait at New York docks for the latest instalment to arrive by ship from Britain. They were that desperate to find out what happened next.

I’ve started so I’ll finish

What all these examples have in common is that when people manage to start something they’re more inclined to finish it. Procrastination bites worst when we’re faced with a large task that we’re trying to avoid starting. It might be because we don’t know how to start or even where to start.

What the Zeigarnik effect teaches is that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting somewhere…anywhere.

Don’t start with the hardest bit, try something easy first. If you can just get under way with any part of a project, then the rest will tend to follow. Once you’ve made a start, however trivial, there’s something drawing you on to the end. It will niggle away in the back of your mind like a Lost cliffhanger.

Although the technique is simple, we often forget it because we get so wrapped up in thinking about the most difficult parts of our projects. The sense of foreboding can be a big contributor to procrastination.

The Zeigarnik effect has an important exception. It doesn’t work so well when we’re not particularly motivated to achieve our goal or don’t expect to do well. This is true of goals in general: when they’re unattractive or impossible we don’t bother with them.

But if we value the goal and think it’s possible, just taking a first step could be the difference between failure and success.

Image credit: Gestalt Theory

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