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etc.

An Aspirational List on How to Live

This is an aspirational list of things I’d like to do or be but am not now. It’s heavily inspired by Derek Sivers and his idea of “directives,” short statements on how to live. I wrote this saying “I am” rather than “I’d like to be,”  so that by telling myself I’m this way, I’ll begin to act the part.

  • I associate with people I admire. The people in my life expand my horizons and open the world to me.
  • Love is the most important part of my life. My primary focus is on relationships.
  • I find ways to serve people and improve the world. I am generous with my time and money.
  • I have a bias for action. When I recognize something is good, I act on it immediately, or as soon as possible.
  • I embrace the strenuous life. I welcome challenges to my mental and physical endurance.
  • I take smart risks. If there’s a reasonable advantage, a smart angle or black swan-like ratio, I take the risk.
  • I project strength and warmth. I am someone people trust, follow, and want to be around.
  • Mastery is my way of life. I have a beginners mind that seeks perfection in everything I do.
  • I use writing, reading, storytelling, music, and art to understand and connect with humanity.
  • I am a spiritual person. I take time to meditate, reflect, feel gratitude, and to heal myself and others.
  • I am completely honest.
  • Now is the time that matters most to me. Life is short and precious so I seize the moment.
  • I bring solutions, not problems.

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books etc.

Musings on The Amazon Book Store

I recently visited the Amazon book store, currently the only one in existence. I came away with mixed feelings. The best part is that the prices are the same in the store as online. Other than that though, there’s not much good to say about it. It’s small, the shelves are much too close together making the entire store feel uncomfortably crowded. The worst part is that it’s stocked only with the best selling and highest rated books on Amazon. This results in a very shallow selection picked purely by popularity. Your chances of discovering a forgotten treasure are next to nothing. We left and went from there to Third Place Books. It was a breath of fresh air. As nice is it is to pay less, I’ll stick bookstores like Third Place or El Ateneo when I’m shopping IRL.

Categories
Myth and Matter Links

The Melting Pot

A few good links to get your wheels spinning:

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’s 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. 🙂
  • 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 🙂
  • 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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Categories
Myth and Matter Links

How to Learn a Foreign Language in Your Spare Time

Since this is an article entirely focused on one topic, learning languages, I want to start with a non-obvious answer to the question  “why would you spend so much time learning a language?” 

The answer is that it’s often the only thing I have time and/or mental capacity to do. Between working full-time and an active family, there aren’t many opportunities left in the day for uninterrupted focus. Then, if there is a block of time, I’m often simply too tired to dig into something that requires my full attention. Language learning, as it turns out, is perfect for those times. As long as some preparation has been done beforehand, I can spend anywhere from 2 minutes to 2 hours opening up an app or some flashcards (see below for examples) and get in some solid learning. Interruptions are fine, having only a few minutes is fine. I can jump in, get a quick session done and go back to whatever else needs my attention. The best part is, it’s fun. Once I have a new word or phrase in my head, I’ll teach it to my kids or repeat it out loud a few times. I’ve found that it gives me the same kind of boost as playing an iPhone game.

So, apart from all the obvious reasons for learning a language (travel, communication, etc.) that’s why learning languages has been so enjoyable for me. Check out the resources below and give it a try, maybe you’ll find some of the same enjoyment.

Gabriel Wyner, my favorite language learning expert and the author of Fluent Forever, a must have book for anyone studying languages, has updated his popular learning technique. He wrote about it in an article called On Hacking Fluent Forever. Well worth the read.

 

And… here’s the big list:

  • I’ve started using Memrise heavily over the last few weeks. They’ve updated their mobile apps and website and it’s become a close second to Duolingo. Memrise is mostly free, thought they do have a premium plan. I don’t think the premium plan is necessary for learning, but I subscribed because I think they’re a great business, in particular, I am excited to see the results of their Membus Tour – currently on Kickstarter. Memrise was founded by my second favorite language learning expert, Ed Cooke (the link goes to his book on Amazon).
  • Have I mentioned that Duolingo has Russian now?
  • In addition to Duolingo and Memrise, I use Anki heavily. It’s a spaced repetition flashcard app that is free for computers with an (expensive) iOS version available as well. Check out Gabriel Wyner’s pronunciation trainer decks for the best Anki resource on sounding like a native speaker.
  • The Actual Fluency podcast is generally pretty good. It helps keep the motivation up.
  • The Chunking Express – this is a quick Economist article that can really make your learning more focused and effective.
  • There are a bunch of other language learning sites that are up-and-coming. Some are better than others, I simply haven’t had time to try them all extensively:
    • Readlang – Chrome extension that trains you by translating words to or from your target language inline then saves your translations to flashcards.
    • Verbling – native speaking tutors and lessons. ~$10 – 25 an hour.
    • Ling
    • Forgo – Cool, extensive and free pronunciation dictionary.
    • Bliu Bliu – language learning for intermediate learners.
    • Lingua.ly – learn by reading and translating articles.
    • CoffeeStrap – text chat with native speakers.
    • FluentU – learn by watching videos. Pretty slick translation interface.
    • italki – lessons from native speakers.
    • HelloTalk – language exchange for mobile devices.
    • Speaky – another language exchange.
    • MangoLanguages – good online conversational lessons. Expensive if you pay for it yourself, but most likely free through your public library. My favorite part is the feature that lets you easily compare your pronunciation with that of a native speaker.

In addition to all these there are scads of terrible mobile apps (and a few good ones). My recommendation would be to try the above before going to the app store. Also notice that nowhere in this list is a certain software that comes in a yellow box mentioned. I’ll leave it at that.

If that’s not enough, here’s another extensive, but somewhat unfiltered, list of resources.

As always, you can find me on Twitter @zzzmarcus and online at my website. You can reply to (or forward) this with feedback or questions and, if you reply in a different language, even better 🙂

Categories
Myth and Matter Links

A Potpourri of Brain Food

Nobody will like all of these links, everybody will like at least one:

  • If you use Google Photos for your personal pictures, try using search. It is incredible. Search for something like “Volkswagen” or “red shirt” or “acoustic guitar” or pretty much anything else. It just works. It’s also much faster than any other online photo backup / management app I’ve used.
  • The bluegrass band The Cleverlys do Gangam Style entirely in Korean. Impressive.
  • Jerry (who has no online presence) recommended this MIT course on algorithms. It’s taught by Erik Demaine who is a fantastic visual artist and one of the best teachers I can remember having. It requires a bit of programming knowledge but is otherwise very accessible
  • The Way to Love by Anthony de Mello is a book that reminds me some of Krishnamurti, except from a Jesuit perspective. It’s a strong catalyst for change, even for a secular reader. It’s short and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
  • Mandatory language learning link: This one is personal and less than 140 characters: How I Learned Cyrillic. (spoiler alert: brute force)
  • Hubert Dreyfus’ Lectures on Heidegger’s Being and Time. I haven’t listened to these yet, but I’m putting them here because someone should.
  • And a semi-random thought to finish the list: There are four types of hormones – peptide, amino acid, eicosanoid and steroid.