Friday, April 25, 2014

The newspaper habit: Avoid confirmation bias and escape the echo chamber

Pay attention, especially to things you disagree with or don't understand. If you agree with most of what you read, it means you're not reading enough of the right things. It doesn't mean you're wrong, just narrow.
Let's broaden things a bit.
On the internet you're in total control of what you read. Two problems show up. Confirmation bias and the echo chamber.
Confirmation bias: If you're looking something up and it matches what you think already, you're going to accept it and stop looking. If, on the other hand, what you find doesn't match up with what you already think you'll keep looking until you find something you agree with.
Echo chamber: The internet lets you read about what you're interested in. The media sites that you like will tend to have news and opinions that reinforce your views. The people you chat with all agree with you.
An extreme example to make the point: If all you read is the forums on the Justin Bieber fan club page, you're likely to conclude that everyone else loves his music too. The people who disagree don't post there.
Staying inside the echo chamber makes it pretty easy to be oblivious to things outside your sphere of interest that impact you.
That's where the newspaper habit comes in. Reading local newspapers brings you a whole host of information about the community you're in.
It'll tell you what's going on in your community. You'll notice the things that interest you and skip the things that don't. You'll read the headlines, glance at the pictures and buy the chicken that's on sale.
If there's something else you need to know, the newspaper will have it. If, for example, main street has been torn up for repairs, the newspaper will let you know, even if it's not your sports or news aggregator of choice.
There might even be opinions in there that you disagree with. That's healthy. Breaking out of the echo chamber means sometimes exposing yourself to new ideas. Other ideas will cross pollinate with your old ones and you might end up with something new.
Broaden your worldview. Have enough confidence in your ideas to test them against dissenting opinions. Changing your ideas based on new information doesn't make you weak. It makes you flexible, adaptable, and more likely to be right.
At the very least you won't make plans to drive down main street until it's open again.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The value of vacations.

When was the last time you were really unplugged?
No phone, no blackberry, no email, no radio. You might turn these things off, you might not be on the phone. Having these distractions around tethers you to the whims of anyone who wants to distract you with a conversation, even if you don't pick up.
They can break your concentration even if nobody calls. Knowing that 'maybe you should call someone' can take your mind off what you're doing.
Every once in a while, it's useful to take a step back from the demands of daily life, and spend some time undisturbed with whatever you need to put your life back in balance.
Maybe you need downtime. Maybe you need excitement or a change of scenery. Maybe you're comfortable in your groove - or was that your rut.
Vacations are an opportunity to rebalance your life. In order to do that you can't be down 'in the weeds' dealing with the day to day distractions. It's a time to look at the big picture issues from a distance.
The reason your best ideas show up in the shower is because you're unplugged. The water keeps the headphones from jamming your ears and more importantly your mind with external things to pay attention to.
It's only when you turn off the inputs to your mind that your mind will be free to connect the dots on things that might not otherwise seem connected.
As companies continue to make cellphones smaller and thinner they won't be able to make them light enough to override the mental burden of being at everyone's fingertips. With a phone in your pocket you can't leave them behind.
Interruptions are the enemy of deep thought. It takes about 15 minutes, give or take, to reload your mental RAM to where you were before.
You might not ever get your good ideas back. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Kahn is a fragment of what the author had composed in his head during a dream. He was interrupted and lost the rest.
Continuous partial attention is another enemy of deep thinking. Your consciousness can't multitask. It can task switch pretty well, but that takes away from your stream of thought. I wonder if anyone texted me.

You probably won't go cold turkey, but build some unplugged time into your vacations and watch where your mind takes you.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Shine for something.

The odds against you are astronomical:

Collapsed stars created heavy elements that accreted into our solar system.

Amino acids started arranging themselves on this Goldilocks rock.

Your great-grandparents met each other.

If history zigged instead of zagged, we would be absent from the narrative, none the wiser.

You are here. Alive. Brilliant. Conscious. Desperately racing the clock. A spark flying in defiance the endless night.

You are alive. Now. Now is all there is.

So shine. Burn your candle at both ends. Be at your best in this and every moment. Your spark will not last the night. They never do.

Shine for something. Illuminate the world. Keep someone warm. Keep the fire burning. Set other sparks alight. Shine in the way only you can. Now's your chance. The fire has invited you to come alive.

When you come alive, as a consciousness of the universe, you validate everything that's happened up to this point. You make all of history worthwhile, and you make it possible for others to come alive too. The fire needs sparks that come alive.

Watch out for the smoke. Smoke comes from incomplete combustion. When you blow smoke, you fail to live up to your own potential and you stifle the others around you.

Be as bright, hot, and positive as it is possible for you to be. Forgive the past. Embrace reality. Don't prejudge the future. Don't waste your flight on smoke.

Go Spark, and shine. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Is it good enough?

Being a finch would narrow down the choices some. Is it food? Yep.
Like most things, the question comes back to: given your situation, what do you want?
What do you want is one of two fundamental problems. Either you don't know what you want or you don't know how to get it.
The big version of that question is insufficiently constrained to be useful without three weeks in an ashram. If you have that answer, carry on. You'll be unstoppable.
In the drive-thru, the what do you want question comes with enough context to be easy: burger, fries, drink.It's good enough.
Would a six course prix-fixé with wine pairings be better? Probably. And sometimes the drive-thru is good enough.
It's a question of satisficing, opportunity cost and horizon. What do you want? How much do you want it relative to everything else? How much energy do you want to put into deviating from the default option?
In math, the local maximum of a function is the peak where the values go down in both directions. If up is 'better', doing less makes things worse, and doing more makes things worse too.
Good enough: Best available option within how much you care.
If you're looking at a wider horizon, it may open up other possibilities to optimize outside of your local max.
If you can easily improve, you're probably not at a local max. Keep improving.
Don't forget, you're on the clock. Everything becomes good enough when you run out of time or energy to change it.
It might not ever be perfect. And it might be good enough.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Heartbleed: A problem with the plumbing

Over the next few weeks, companies will be saying words like Heartbleed, OpenSSL, and certificate, and telling you to change your passwords. Change them. Change them all.
This is a great opportunity to fire up your password manager (yes, get a password manager) and make sure you're not reusing passwords in multiple places. 
Like any good security flaw, there's nothing you could have done to avoid the 'Heartbleed' (CVE-2014-0160) bug which became public Monday night. It's a server problem.
An attacker could, without leaving a trace, go fishing in the server's active memory and retrieve up to 64k of whatever's there each time they ask.
This could include logins & passwords, other personal data, or certificate private keys which form the foundation of online authentication.
Once the servers have been updated, change your password. Visit for all the gory details.
It's impossible to know how widely exploited this hole was. The only safe option is to assume it's all compromised.
Are you still there, server? It's me, Margaret.

Password management software will reduce the cognitive overhead of these changes, and make it easy for you to use different long, incomprehensible passwords at every site you visit.
Take care of your plumbing. Rome was built on two goddesses: Venus (love & beauty) and Cloacina (the sewer/infrastructure). Without the Cloaca Maxima (the main storm sewer), the Roman Forum is a swamp, without love or beauty.

You don't get the beauty of the internet without the infrastructure that supports it, and sometimes that needs a little maintenance. Do your part. Change your passwords.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The future of electricity: More like the internet, less like cable tv.

We're still in the cable tv era of electricity. It's centrally produced and wired up to our homes and businesses. It is very hard to imagine modern life without it.
There are lots of incentives for energy companies to maintain the status quo. The disruptive peer to peer model of energy production and consumption threatens their business model.
We use a lot of energy, most of it in buildings and as transportation fuels. No one solution is going to fix it all, but transitioning to sources of energy without ongoing input costs will provide stability for future prices, while reducing the carbon burden on the atmosphere.
As far as fossil fuels are concerned, the scarce resource isn't the fossil fuels. We've proven resourceful at continuing to find ever more remote sources of fossil fuel. 
The scarce resource for all carbon-based fuels is in the ability of the atmosphere and the ocean to absorb the CO2.
The solution is, of course, multifaceted. Structural reduction in energy use is an essential step. Green sources of energy is the obvious part, but coupled with a storage and exchange system that rewards green generation and allows people to profit from participating.
Use less energy. Remembering to turn out the lights is a part of this, but it's really at the tail end. Instead, renovate cities and buildings so that the whole system uses much less energy. Existing buildings can be renovated to use less energy and serve new purposes. These retrofits are often a great deal financially and environmentally, because those costs for the structure has already been paid.
Harnessing a broad mix of renewable energy options is the next step.
Wind power can produce lots of power on appropriate sites. The bigger the turbines the better the energy return on investment is. Financially, the wind will always be free, which makes predicting financial return much easier than guessing at the future price of natural gas or coal.
The same goes for solar photovoltaics. Of course solar and wind need to produce enough energy to pay for their creation, but once that's done, they're carbon free sources of energy.
Solar thermal is a great, often overlooked, source of energy savings. The sun can heat up your domestic water.
Storage and the smart grid are key elements of this transition. Storage can be boring like a rack of batteries or interesting like a Tesla electric car set up to sell its battery power to the grid when you can make money doing so.

That's where the data connections and the software come into play. Software can place a value on a watt of power anywhere in the system. Location matters. Your house could be configured to charge your car with the sun, and when the price of energy is cheap, then sell it back to the grid around supper time when the spot price goes up. If this sounds greek to you, don't worry. Once the pieces are in place, the neighbour kid will set you up.

Friday, April 4, 2014

How to avoid pesticides in your fruits and veggies

So you're skipping out on growing a garden this year but still want to avoid pesticides. If you've got a garden, great, you know exactly where your food comes from.
Here's how: Buying organic fruits and vegetables will keep the pesticides out of your body.
Foods destined to be organic aren't allowed to have pesticides applied to them. You can have confidence that food labelled organic isn't going out of its way to poison you.
An alternative strategy, one that builds community, is to get to know people at the local farmer's market and ask them how they grow their food. Often, small growers will find organic certification cost prohibitive, though they grow their food without pesticides.
Now, if you're only a little worried about the pesticides, the Environmental Working Group out of the US has posted what they call their Dirty Dozen: Fruits and vegetables that are worth buying organic.
So much for an apple a day… Apples and nectarines topped the list for fruits. Along with blueberries, grapes, peaches and strawberries, these ones are worth buying organic, or avoiding altogether.
If you're looking for an excuse not to eat your veggies, the veggies to avoid are celery, bell peppers, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, and potatoes. These ones are worth buying organic or avoiding.
Also, green beans and kale greens didn't make the 'dirty dozen' list, but had organophosphate residues, which have been shown to be neurotoxic. Organophosphates have been linked in an Ohio study with lower birth weight and shorter pregnancies, placing babies at risk.
The 'conventionally grown' foods least likely to contain pesticides are onions, sweet corn, and pineapples. You can see the complete list of the 'clean 15' foods least likely to have pesticides at
Growing your own organic food, buying organic, or getting to know someone who grows clean food will go a long way to keeping pesticides out of your body. If you can't manage a fully organic diet, you can get most of the benefits by avoiding the 'dirty dozen' fruits and vegetables, or buying them organic.

Avoiding pesticides takes a little extra work or a little extra money, but your health is worth it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Connect with your community

Discover what's possible right in your own neighbourhood.
The reason we live so close together is so we can take advantage of the abundance of goods, services, and friendships that proximity provides.
Spontaneous connections make communities come alive. Making optimal use of those serendipitous connections requires a little effort on your part though.
Explore. The next time you find yourself with three minutes to spare, go in, wherever it is you happen to be.
Your three minutes might be fruitless, but it won't be wasted. You'll meet someone new, learn what they're about, and that new information will be available to you when you need it.
On the other hand, right behind that door might be exactly the thing, activity, or experience you didn't realize you needed.
When you fill out the mental map of your neighbourhood and know what's available, that's gives your community its small town feel.
It's not just stores either. Visit the public buildings. There are resources there that you don't know about. Know what you can do at the library, at city hall and the pool.
Check out the clubs too. If one sounds interesting, show up. They may be strangers, but they're only strangers once.
If there's a transit system, know how to use it to get home, even if you'll "never" need it.
The benefits of knowing what's available right around you are worth the temporary discomfort of introducing yourself and asking a few friendly questions.

Connect with your community. That's why it's there.