I’m at WebVisions in Portland for the next two weeks, so there will be a bunch of notes on media, technology, design, and happiness. This was the first talk, a really interesting discussion about media and how kids perceive it, use it, and respond to it. The LAMP is a NYC project to teach kids how to critique and respond to media and its messages.

Reinventing Mass Media with 10,000 Little Jon Stewards
Emily Long, The LAMP
  • The LAMP focuses on teaching young people to be critical thinkers, makers, and especially media makers.
    • Be thoughtful about what’s coming at you from the other side.
    • Jon Stewart is someone who can be thoughtful about, create responses to media. Create his own media.
    • Work with 600-700 kids every year.
  • PEW study of teens:
    • 24% on almost constantly.
    • 56% Several times per day.
    • 12% About once a day
    • —–
    • 92% on every day or more.
  • Media exposure of 8-18 year olds
    • 8-10: 8 hours/day
    • 11-14: 12 hours/day
    • 15-18: 11.5 hours/day
    • Increases for minorities
  • Who makes the media our kids consume?
    • 7 older white men control 90% of all the media that is created.
    • CBS, iHeartMedia(Clearchannel), Comcast, Disney, News Corp, Time, Viacom
    • these are the companies: “the media” “mainstream media”
  • Everyone else:
    • Of top 120 films, women represent just 30% of speaking roles
    • Of top 100 films, black, hispanic speaking roles were less than 10% of all roles
    • 11% of IT leaders at American-based tech firms were women.
    • minorities make up 13% of total newsroom staff.
  • So it’s not just the men at the top, it’s everyone who works for them too.
    • The people who create the media are not representative of all people.
    • So the stories that are told in media can’t be representative of all people.
  • Dove evolution video
    •  Woman wakes up, looks normal.
    • Then they do hear makeup, hair, etc.
    • And then do a bunch of photoshop on her.
    • It show how much media manipulates what we see.
    • When we show it to kids, they are blown away, but how much it was changed.
    • Then they showed the Axe body spray video that shows a bunch of bikini-clad women chasing after a guy because he’s wearing Axe body spray.
      • And then you tell the kids that the same people who make the Dove video also make the Axe commercial.
  • “So you want people to stop using media?”
    • No, we want people to use media better.
    • A food critic doesn’t tell you not to eat. They give you guidance on how to eat better.
    • A media critic doesn’t tell you not to watch media. They want you to use media better.
    • You should be aware of who makes the media, why they make them, who they make them for.
  • Jon Stewart and other folks who parody and challenge media have a long, celebrated role.
    • Creative, non-violent, powerful.
  • MEDIA BREAKER
    • Online, crowdsourced remix platform.
    • Students can take other copyrighted content, and make critical comments on it: remix it, criticize it, challenge it, add their messages to it.
  • While you’re watching something and enjoy something, you can also think critically about it. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, but that you don’t take in the whole message as gospel without thinking about.
  • Asking questions…
    • Why is there only one woman in every action movie?
    • If Boyhood was filmed in Texas, where are all the hispanics?
  • Fair Use
    • allows the use of copyrighted media for fair use.
    • It’s important for people to know when it’s okay to reuse, versus when it’s just stealing.

DARPA backing cortical modem:

The first Program Manager to present, Phillip Alvelda, opened the event with his mind blowing project to develop a working “cortical modem”. What is a cortical modem you ask? Quite simply it is a direct neural interface that will allow for the visual display of information without the use of glasses or goggles. I was largely at this event to learn about this project and I wasn’t disappointed.

Leveraging the work of Karl Deisseroth in the area of optogenetics, the cortical modem project aims to build a low cost neural interface based display device. The short term goal of the project is the development of a device about the size of two stacked nickels with a cost of goods on the order of $10 which would enable a simple visual display via a direct interface to the visual cortex with the visual fidelity of something like an early LED digital clock.

The implications of this project are astounding.

A few weeks ago my friend and fellow science fiction writer, Ramez Naam, posted a link to an article debunking some myths about bulletproof coffee. Then today I noticed a link on Reddit about a professor at Kansas State University who went on a convenience store diet eating Twinkies to prove that counting calories is what matters most in weight loss, not the nutritional value in food.

I am all for science, and I love to understand exactly how things work and why things have the effect they do. But often I think that in our zeal to get to the truth we overlook the practical question of what actually works.

Let me give you an example. If you ask a dentist whether it’s better to floss before you brush your teeth or after you brush your teeth, they’ll tell you it doesn’t matter. Both are equally effective at preventing dental problems. However, if you look at how many people continue flossing, that is, they stay in compliance with the regimen of flossing, then you find there is a difference. People who floss after they brush their teeth are more likely to continue flossing. (Sorry, I read this a year or two ago, and can’t find a link now.)

Why is this important? Well if you look at diets, the most important factor in weight loss is not how effective the diet is, but in how compliant people are. It’s easy to start a diet, hard to stay on it. Staying on it is the challenge for for most people.

Perhaps we could, in theory, eat exactly 1200 calories of Twinkies every day and lose weight, but in practice how likely are we to continue counting calories meal after meal, week after week?

I think the value that people get out of approaches like bulletproof coffee, low-carb diets, or other structural approaches to dieting (in which the emphasis is on eliminating certain foods rather than counting calories) is that for some people those diets are easier to stick with. This moves us out of the realm of basic chemical/biological science (which is how you might measure effectiveness of a diet), and into the realm of psychology (which is probably where the majority of compliance comes from.)

But even if we evaluate diets for compliance, it doesn’t mean there’s one best solution for all people. Some people might do really well with one diet, and other people do better with a different one. We all have different favorite foods, eating habits, and tolerance for eating the same foods over and over. For other people, a low-carb diet might work really well, others might like to replace breakfast with bulletproof coffee, still others use exercise, and some count calories, and some blend multiple approaches.

So when we see a piece of research that says counting calories is what matters most in weight-loss, we know that it’s wrong. What matters is the combination of compliance (whether people can stick to the diet for whatever period of time is necessary) and effectiveness (how much weight is lost when you’re in compliance.)

Yes, we need science and the understanding of fundamental principles and theory. But what also need to know is how things work in practice, and not just in a general population, but specifically for us.

The way we get there is through personal experimentation. Be willing to try something (within reason, of course) for a period of time and see how it works. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t matter that science says that it works for 80% of people. It only matters that it doesn’t work for you. Learn that it doesn’t work, and then move on to a different trial.

Conversely if something is working for you, then it doesn’t matter if science can’t explain it. It’s working. Don’t mess with it.

Unfortunately, thanks to a business trip in my day job and some bad ergonomics while traveling, I’m struggling with a bout of chronic tendinitis again. So I’ve made an intentional choice to stay away from the keyboard is much as possible.

As part of that practice I bought the new version of Dragon dictate for the Mac. I’m glad to say it’s vastly improved over older versions. I first used Dragon Dictate in 2002 or so, when I first had tendinitis issues related to my day job in computer programming. Back then it was sort of comically wrong. You’d dictate a paragraph of text and maybe 50% would be right.

But the new version is quite astounding. I’ve dictated several blog post and it’s made zero gross errors. There have been a few small errors, where I have either failed to say what I meant, slurred some words together, or used words or phrases that were very uncommon (like the touring exception or patriot).

If you are familiar with speech recognition about 10 years ago, then you know that between the combination of lower accuracy and problems correcting text, it often became a comedy of errors trying to get what you wanted onto the page. But today, it’s easy enough to just read and then make a few simple corrections at the end.

Just a few years ago I investigated Dragon dictate for the Mac, but at the time the version that was out apparently was very buggy according to reviews. The current version today seems pretty darn solid and fun to use.

If you’re struggling with any kind of repetitive stress injury, give speech recognition a try again even if you had bad results in the past.

A great article in The Atlantic about happiness versus meaning. An excerpt:

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write.

How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.

Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.” The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.

“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers, which include Stanford University’s Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, write.

As a writer and a software developer, I’m in the content business. I understand businesses need to make money off online services, and without that money they’ll go out of business.

Advertising is an effective way to make money. When I recently worked on the business strategy for a small project, it was clear that giving the product away and advertising on page views would make about ten times as much money as charging for the product, as well as leading to broader adoption.

Unfortunately, as a human being, I don’t like advertising, for a number of reasons.
Advertising creates unnecessary desire: Many years ago I would spend part of every month intensely dissatisfied with the car I was driving. I’d consider how much money I had, and whether I could afford a new car. From a personal financial perspective, buying a new car would have been a bad decision. So I’d end up feeling bad about my car and my money situation. I gradually realized I only felt this way during the five days following the arrival of Road & Track, a car magazine. The rest of the month, I felt just fine. I cancelled my subscription. 
Advertising is biased: Even when I’ve decided to buy something, I want to do research and make an educated decision. I can do that with unbiased reviews. I want to know the truth about a product, not a company’s carefully tailored “our product is perfect for everything” advertising spiel that usually borders on lies.
Advertising is especially evil for kids: I’ve got three young kids who often use my computer. Not only are the advertisements displayed often inappropriate for kids, but kids are especially vulnerable to ad messages.
That being said, I’ve lived with advertising for a long time. Because it’s only fair, after all, to pay for services I use. Services that I especially like, in many cases, and want to stick around. So even though I know there have been ad-block plugins for browsers, I didn’t use them. 
When I have the choice to pay for a service I like, I always do. This usually opts me out of ads. I happily pay for Pandora, a service I love. I buy reddit gold. I pay for the shareware I download.
I had hoped that over time we’d see more services go to this model, where a modest fee would support an ad-free experience. I’d especially like to pay for an ad-free YouTube experience or an ad-free Google Search. But it hasn’t happened.
After many years of waiting, I’ve changed my mind about ad-block services. I believe the only way online services will get the message that we don’t like advertising is for as many people as possible to use ad-block plugins for their browser. Instead of seeing ad-blockers as a mechanism to to avoid “payment” for services, I see it as an activist tool to send a message to online services: give us an ad-free option or we’ll create it ourselves.
I’m using the most popular Chrome plugins: AdBlock from https://getadblock.com. It takes seconds to install, and you’ll never see an ad again. You won’t see ads on webpages and you won’t see them on videos. Peace and quiet has come back to my web browser.

Go ahead and give it a try. I think you’ll be delighted by reclaiming your web browsing experience. But more importantly, do it to send a message. 

Brad Feld posts about why he writes for an hour each day:

Finally, after almost 20 years of writing, the light bulb went on for me.

I write to think.

Forcing myself to sit down and work through these ideas in a logical sequence for an audience of readers required me to refine my thinking on how I invest in startups. How could I make the financing process more efficient? What’s the best way to structure a deal? I learned a lot, both from my writing and my readers’ responses.

I also love this gem on Jeff Bezos from Brad’s post:

Consider Jeff Bezos’s approach to meetings. Whoever runs the meeting writes a memo no longer than six pages about the issue at hand. Then, for the first 15 to 30 minutes of the meeting, the group reads it. The rest of the meeting is spent discussing it. No PowerPoint allowed. Brilliant. (I’ve long felt that PowerPoint is a terrible substitute for critical thinking.)

This aligns nicely with what Edward Tufte says:

PowerPoint… usually weaken(s) verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt(s) statistical analysis.

I spent the last few days in bed with the flu. In addition to missing the company of visiting family, I also missed writing time.

During those couple of days, my friend Tac Anderson asked on Facebook about people’s goals for 2014, as opposed to resolutions.

That got me thinking. What I’d like to achieve in 2014 includes completing, editing, and publishing my next adult novel, editing and publishing my children’s novel, and rewriting Avogadro Corp. (Avogadro Corp is a great story, but it was my first written work, and it’s got some rough areas that could benefit from time and attention.)

One way or another, I will get those books done, but I’d prefer to do it with less stress than its taken to get some of my past books out. I balance a day job, a family, and writing, and although each book is a joy to write and publish, it’s also exhausting to do on top of an already full life.

So my goal for 2014 is to get my day job commitment down from 80% time to 60%. (Hi boss!) To do that, I’ll either need to bring in more book income, find alternate sources of income, reduce expenses, or some combination of all of the above.

I’ve been investigating foreign rights and traditional publishers, and I’ll think more about kickstarter campaigns. I’m open to ideas if you’ve got any.

What are your goals for 2014, and how do you hope to achieve them?

Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit, spoke at Powell’s yesterday about the founding of Reddit and his new book Without Their Permission.

It was a fun talk: He’s a good speaker, clearly knows and enjoys his subject matter, and has plenty of fun anecdotes. His basic message is that we need to become entrepreneurs because its good for us personally and good for the world. The barrier to gain attention and achievement is high, but there are no gatekeepers stopping us from pursuing our dreams as there were even just ten years ago.

Here are my full notes from the talk:

Alexis Ohanian
Cofounder of Reddit
Author of Without Their Permission
  • The fear of being embarrassed holds people back.
    • Reddit started as an incredibly barebones html site. If being embarrassed had held them back, they would never have done it.
  • The fear of not knowing what you’re doing holds people back.
    • The secret is that nobody really knows what they’re doing if they’re trying anything new.
  • The world is not flat, but the world-wide-web is flat. It’s all equal. Two guys with a laptop and an internet connection can anything.
  • Reddit started in a suburb of a suburb of Cambridge, which is a suburb of Boston, which is not at all silicon valley.
    • great burritos in silicon valley, but no need to be there.
  • The enemy is the back button — Paul Graham
    • The enemy is whether people leave your site. 
    • You have to be better than cat photos.
  • So much is competing for our attention.
    • If you have ideas you want to spread, the bar is high to compete.
    • But word of mouth is just as important as it ever was
    • Watercooler conversations have just moved online
    • It’s so exciting to see people doing philanthropy, art, and getting their message out.  
  • Gatekeepers vs. no gatekeepers
    • Anecdote about Gary Larson and The Farside. He just barely managed to get syndication, and only then because he went on vacation and managed to get a deal. 
    • What about all the other Gary Larson’s out there who got filtered out because the gatekeepers said no?
  • All the web comics out there today could only exist in this era. 
    • xkcd only exists because of the internet. 
    • it’s a business that earns a living for their creator. 
    • there’s no way that the math joke from the programmer drawn with a stick figure would have been put on the page next to family circus.
  • Kickstarter has now given more money to art than the National Endowment for Art.
  • Choose your own adventure version of Hamlet.
    • No traditional publisher would have backed this. If they had, it would have been a meager, several thousand dollar advance.
    • On Kickstarter, he got $600,000 to write this.
  • Alexis would have been an immigration lawyer if he hadn’t had a fateful conversation in a waffle house.
  • If you are a programmer today, you have the most valuable skill possible.
    • And, you can be entirely self-taught. 
    • All the knowledge you need is available for free.
  • Paul Graham gving a talk about how to start a startup.
    • Alexis and Steve heard of this talk, realized it would be during spring break.
    • Decided to go there, rather than the beach.
    • Went from Virginia to Boston. 
    • Introduced themselves, talk him that they wanted to pitch their business (Mmm… something mobile using text message) to him.
    • He said “you have a slightly better than awful chance”.
  • Soon after, Paul formed Y combinator.
    • They interviewed for it.
    • Were rejected that night.
    • Decided they would prove him wrong.
  • Out that night with a bunch of Harvard guys
    • Harvard guys bragging about their bank jobs
    • They lied, bragged that they got into Y combinator
  • On the train back the next morning, get a call from Paul.
    • He hated the idea because it was based on phones (not smart phones). Said he’d let them in if they did something on the web instead.
    • They got off at the next stop, turned around, went back to Boston.
  • Had discussion about their experiences using Slashdot, reading newspapers, etc.
    • Paul said yes, on the right direction…build the front page of the internet.
    • A lot of pressure, when all they wanted to do was continue to live the college lifestyle.
  • Humans of New York — Brandon
    • failed out of University of Georgia
    • bounced around different finance jobs
    • suddenly decided he wanted to move to NY and become a photographer
    • his friends told him he was crazy. he didn’t even own a camera, didn’t know anything about photography.
    • But he goes to NY. his photos sucks.
    • He reads how to get better. A few days turned into a few weeks turned into a few months.
    • In four years went from having never taken a photo in his life, to being a worldwide celebrated and viewed photographer
    • From no fame or credibility to worldwide credibility, making the world suck a little less.
    • Hilarious and moving.
    • Ten years ago, that never would have been possible.
  • “Dude, sucking is the first step to being kind of good at something.” — Adventure Time
Questions
  • “Nobody does know what they’re doing. It all seems like its luck.”
    • Malcome Gladwell’s book Outliers — chance is still the biggest component of the equation.
    • The idea that all web links are equal. True only on a technical level. In the real world, still subject to luck: which link gets attention. 
  • “A lot of luck is part of it, but it also seems like dedication is part of it. You need talents like design, development, ideas, etc. What do you think your talents are that got your over the hill?”
    • The ability to build the thing is probably the most important.
    • My talent is the willingness to do anything/everything else: get takeout, call the wireless provider, anything…
    • Tenacity
      • Airbnb: founders ate nothing but cereal for a year and a half to keep costs down. They just wouldn’t quit.
        • Aside: Airbnb one day discovered that really good, attractive photos make people far more comfortable to rent an apartment. That discovery helped them turn the corner, turn into a billion dollar company.
    • Be comfortable with failure / negative feedback. Alexis has a negative reinforcement wall:
      • “You are a rounding error to Yahoo. Why are you even here talking to us?”
  • “What’s appearing to you about bit coin?”
    • It’s a digital crypto currency for the internet.
    • I’m cautiously optimistic about it because it’s just absurd how much money financial institutions make just moving money around. they’re a drain on the economy/world/money.
    • Even though silk road is shut down, we still see bitcoin transactions at roughly the same level. Good sign that it’s being used for legitimate stuff.
    • He gets bitcoin donations from people who torrent his book.