Categories
Technology

The Simplified World of The Thing Explainer

The hottest Christmas book around our house this year has been The Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe. It explains complicated stuff using only the thousand most common words in the English language. A helicopter becomes a “Sky Boat with Turning Wings” and a dishwasher is a “Box that Cleans Food Holders.” This has had the kids cracking up every time they open the book. If that’s not a good enough recommendation, maybe Bill Gates can convince you that it’s worth checking out. If you want to try your hand at writing with only the 1000 most common words, Munroe has created a tool to help you do it.

And, if you haven’t encountered Munroe before, you’re in for a treat. His comic XKCD is a gem. Here’s a good place to start.

Categories
Science Technology

String Wars

String Theory is a 30 year old theory that, if proven, would provide a unified way of explaining the four fundamental forces of nature. It combines the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism with the very elusive force of gravity.

String theory has problems though.After 30 years an unproven theory would usually be counted a failure and scientists would move on to something more promising. However string theory still isn’t finished and, even if it were, there is no way to test it. Not only that, but strings, if they exist, are too small for us to measure now, or any time in the conceivable future. This has led some to accuse string theory of not even being a true scientific theory. Yet scientists spend a lot of time and money on it. This is a topic that heats up every so often. Now is one of those times.

  • Peter Woit, a math professor at Columbia University is, and has been for the last 10 years, the most forceful critic of String Theory. He has a book called Not Even Wrong and writes very frequently about it on his blog, also called Not Even Wrong. Another book that covers some of the same ground is The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin. It‚Äôs an accessible book for a science amateur like me.
  • Brian Greene, Woit’s colleague at Columbia University, is a huge proponent of string theory and has written some very readable explanations on the state of the theory and of theoretical physics in general. I’ve read and highly recommend The Fabric of the Cosmos. According to this Nautilus article, Woit and Greene have never actually gotten into a fist fight in the halls of Columbia.
  • Quanta Magazine has an awesome graphic representation of all of the current, major Theories of Everything mapped with basic explanations of what the theories are and what we stand to learn from them.
Categories
Myth and Matter Links

Aspergers, Bees, James Joyce & More

  • In an effort to branch out, I’ve been reading Neurotribes. It starts with a history autism and Aspergers syndrome and their strange parallel development and weaves this through many other realms. Science fiction, computer science, medical science and psychology in Germany, England, America and other places. There’s even great section on John McCarthy and the beginnings of Artificial Intelligence in the book. Well, so much for branching out…
  • The Bees by Laline Paull is a sci-fi told from the perspective of a female sanitation bee inside a hive. It is bizarrely amazing. After reading it, somehow I feel like I am more at one with the mind of the bee. ūüôā
  • The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham looks at James Joyce’s Ulysses and the cultural context for its publication. There are crazy stories of censorship, subversion, suffragettes and the magazines that were early predecessors of blogs. The writing is excellent and the story it tells is relevant, interesting and wild.
  • Here’s a fun tech-centric wrap-up of 52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2015.
  • Tetrachromacy – 12% of women have four cone types in their eyes, one more than men. A small percentage of these women actually see more colors.
    Cool.
  • The Siberian Times has a cool article on Russian prison tattoos and a guy who tries to catalog their meanings. What a different world.
  • I came across another method for learning vocabulary in a foreign language. It’s called the Goldlist method. The official explanation is here, but I find it to be too wordy. Check out this short video for a more concise rundown. I haven’t tried it yet, but it seems promising.
Categories
Myth and Matter Links

Lists & Expeditions

  • This is cool, the¬†Bionic Bird¬†– a super light¬†drone that you could almost mistake for a bird. I’m not sure how long you could expect it to last with such thin wings, but it’s the first reasonably priced robotic bird I’ve ever seen.
  • The Scoville Scale measures the¬†hotness of chili peppers. I ate a ghost chili this week so this scale was especially relevant to me for about 15 minutes. At ~1 million Scoville units, it¬†was very, very hot ūüôā
  • OpenAI¬† is a new nonprofit with a billion dollars pledged to it from big names like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel to help direct the future of artificial intelligence.
  • Also relevant to AI is Crispr, a relatively new¬†way of editing genes. This powerful technology could be used to alter the human genetic code. It obviously comes with many ethical implications. As far as how it relates to AI, it could plausibly be used to enable us to create¬†exceptionally high intelligence humans who would accelerate the path to human level general artificial¬†intelligence which could then lead to a super intelligence along with everything that implies.
  • Noam Chomsky¬†gets some more evidence to back up his highly controversial linguistic theory that says that we come with a genetically built in grammar that¬†all¬†human languages adhere to. The best argument against his theory comes from Daniel Everett and can be found in the very enjoyable, very accessible book Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes.
  • Michel Houellebecq¬†is an interesting guy. I found him in a¬†blog¬†post¬†where containing a video where Houellebecq¬†talks rather eloquently¬†about the famous French critic of American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville. Houellebecq’s book Submission is now available in English and is said to be a good critique of the situation with Islam in the West. I’m looking forward to reading it.
  • There’s a solo expedition across Antarctica going on right now. If Henry Worsley completes his trek, he’ll be the first to do a solo trek across the Southern continent. His short daily audio updates are fun to listen to from the warm comfort of my couch.
  • In a different type of expedition,¬†Ann Morgan read a book from every country in the world and made a list for us to follow along with her. Pretty awesome.
  • And while we’re talking about lists, ever thought of writing sci-fi? Here’s a list of things¬†not¬†to do.
Categories
Software

The Sad State of Personal Knowledgebases

A Personal Knowledgebase (PK) is any system that you use to store and retrieve general information. The key here is that the system should be capable of storing a large amount information on any number of topics and, ideally, provide some type of way to view relationships between the information.

Historically this has been the realm of pen and paper. More recently, people have used their computers to create folders of documents that they then search when they need to find something they stored. With the dawn of the Internet,¬†the wiki came along to take advantage of hyperlinks. For the most part, that’s where progress stopped.

Today most people don’t use a PK¬†but they do, it’s almost certain to be Evernote or OneNote or something along those lines, basically a flat list of notes that’s easily searchable and taggable or folderable. Power users might use a personal wiki.¬†

To me, all of these seem comparable to using a roll of toilet paper to write a book. You can do it, but there are better ways. Some of better options exist now, but I think that we’re still far from having a great personal knowledgebase.

In a perfect world a PK would have the following features:

  • Good search.
  • Unlimited size. Since it will be used¬†to store just about everything¬†you want to save for your whole life it needs to handle getting big well.
  • Simple to use. It should have zero learning curve for someone who just wants to dump a bunch of notes in it and a fast learning curve for anyone wanting to use more powerful¬†features.
  • Convenient and fast. It should be available online or offline¬†on your phone or tablet or laptop or wherever else you might want to use it. Adding content to it should be as close to effortless as possible and accessible from within other apps.
  • Structured. It should work fine without any organization but should allow for very flexible relationships between notes and, now that basic AI is becoming more viable, it should suggest relationships intelligently.

Surprisingly, no software with all those features exists yet. There are some interesting options though:

  • TheBrain – I’ve used this one for quite a few years. It’s stagnating somewhat these days but from what I hear, a full rewrite is underway and will be launched sometime in 2016. I’m curious to see what they come up with. Jerry’s brain is the canonical example of TheBrain in use.
  • Kumu is a new and interesting take on the idea of a PK. It’s mostly geared toward network visualization now, but I think there’s a lot of potential there.
  • Inforapid is new to me, but has been around for some time now. It’s Windows only, so I haven’t tried it, and the UI and website¬†seem¬†quite dated¬†but otherwise it seems interesting.
  • Faqt seems to be going for a kanban / SCRUM style card-based layout.
  • PiggyDB is a somewhat¬†complicated PK. It’s not for me,¬†but it has a community of people who love it. It seems to focus on structure over visualization.
  • Curio and Tinderbox are two others that have been around for awhile. They’re more project-based, but are close enough to being¬†PK’s¬†to make the list.

The key point here is that years after “Web 2.0” we’re long overdue for a very good personal knowledgebase. I don’t have a solution, but the problem is worth bringing to light. If you build this or can point me to it, I’d be happy to pay for it!

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