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.

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.
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.
  • 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.
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.

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!

beaded formal dresses

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.
    •¬†– 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 ūüôā

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.
Myth and Matter Links

China, That Little Country with 423% of The Population of the US

I’ve never been to China, but would love to go, especially after reading Liu Cixin. It’s been fascinating exploring the Eastern way of thinking–very old, very mature, yet so different from Western thought.¬†

  • I loved the book¬†Three Body Problem¬†by Chinese author Liu Cixin, but The Dark Forest¬†is twice as long and,¬†I think, twice as good. This trilogy is quickly becoming one of my favorites. Cixin might not be¬†as inventive as Neal Stephenson and he may not have the character breadth of fantasy authorBrandon Sanderson, but in terms of pure science fiction, he’s up there withIsaac¬†Asimov.
  • The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why¬†by Richard Nisbett¬†dives into why China never developed science in the Western sense, but how their very different way of thinking led to many pragmatic inventions and a worldview Westerners could learn a lot from. I’m only a couple chapters in, but have already have learned a ton.
  • Speaking of different ways of thinking… I’ve seen The I Ching, or, Book of Changes referenced many times, but I’ve never read it. I’m still a complete noob but this version¬†has a great forward¬†by Carl Jung (read it online here). He¬†explains how what¬†could seem comparable to astrology or a magic book of spells¬†can be useful to even the Western mind.
  • ?¬†is “wood”¬†or “tree” in Chinese.¬†?¬†is “forest.”¬†Cool.
  • That 423% number came from WolframAlpha, one of the most impressive search sites on the Internet.
Myth and Matter Links

Short Stories about Deity

My friend Seth and I have been trading short stories that explore the idea of God for the last few years. This is a list of some of the best. Sit back and enjoy them for what they are, fun stories and thought experiments. They’re all available freely online.

  • The Last Question¬†by¬†Isaac¬†Asimov. His “favorite story,” one that encompasses all of human history in just a few pages.
  • Answer by Fredric Brown. Just read it :), the whole thing is almost short enough to Tweet.
  • Talking to God¬†from The Ragged Trousered Philosopher. God answers some questions in a chance encounter with an atheist on the bus.
  • Hell Is the Absence of God by Ted Chiang. Angels visit Earth in a dramatic way. This one is a pretty dark. I¬†included mostly just for the sake of completion… skip it maybe.
  • The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke. What do a bunch of Tibetan monks need with a supercomputer?
  • The Egg by Andy Weir,¬†author of The Martian. If everyone thought this way, Earth would be awesome.
  • I don’t know, Timmy, being God is a big responsibility¬†by qntm. What happens when a group of engineers creates a quantum computer capable of simulating the universe?
Myth and Matter Links

Why Superintelligence Matters

Start with this article on¬†Wait But Why. Its fascinating and shouldn’t be missed even if you have almost no interest in computers.

The article is largely based on Nick Bostrom’s work. If you like it, you should check out his book book¬†Superintelligence. It also¬†discusses many of¬†Ray Kurzweil’s¬†ideas.¬†Some of which are a bit¬†far fetched, but hey, this is AI we’re talking about, it’s all far fetched.

More AI Stuff