📬 The Free-Range Technologist July 2020 😷

The first half of 2020 didn't quite go as planned! I hope you and yours are safe and healthy. I am treating July 1st as if it were January 1st. A chance to start the year over again and re-think how to make the future better and brighter. So much bad news, but keeping in contact with students has made me optimistic about the long term.

As such, I want to get going again with sharing useful resources and tips. As always, be sure to hit reply and tell me what you have been up to, what you are reading, and what neat stuff you have discovered lately!

Zooming to you live from my basement workshop! Not how I imagined my teaching would change this year, but thanks to my excellent students, it all worked out!

July Edition

Discoveries and Lifehacks

Simulation/Game:Universal Paperclips

I missed Universal Paperclips when it first when it came out, but it is worth checking out if you missed it as well. This game is based on a simple idea: You are an artificial intelligence whose sole purpose is making paperclips. You are so single-minded in your paper clip pursuit that you will turn the entire Universe into paperclips if given the opportunity. This game illustrates an AI principal called instrumental convergence: a single-minded AI tries to optimize a process at the expense of humans (i.e., it will try to turn you into resources for creating paperclips!).

It is a fun game to play, and the game's author--Frank Lantz of New York University--has done an excellent job of making it compelling, even if you don't always understand what is happening!

Better Email: Hey.com
I sent my first message through BITNET in 1989 while in College (to Dan W). Over the past thirty years, I have become trapped by email. But I may have found a way out via a new email service called hey.com. It is a paid service with limits, but that is why I like it. Hey.com doesn't mine your data, serve up ads, or provide not dozens of options for formatting, filing, etc. I have been using it for about a week and find that it has helped me with batch processing my emails thereby giving me more time to concentrate on getting real work completed. You can reach me at jsc@hey.com and read more about why I want limits on my emails here: I am ALL IN with the Hey.com email platform.

I am also eagerly awaiting to try out Neeva, a search engine that doesn't track your every move on the interest and where you own your data. There is a wait-list to get on this paid search service, but I think it is intriguing, and I'm looking forward to testing it out.

Newsletter: Behavioral New World
My friend and colleague John Howe has started a monthly newsletter explaining how behavioral economics can help us to understand the world, and how you can use your understanding of behavioral economics to be healthier, wealthier, and happier! I highly recommend. John is an excellent writer and provides some very practical examples. You can sign up . And here are links to the first three editions:

Articles: Understanding decision making with imperfect information.
I have been using the COVID crisis as an opportunity time to talk with my students about how to approach decision making in times of uncertainty (while doing my best to channel Mike C.). Here are a few of the resources that were the most useful and worth sharing.

Is this information interesting or useful? If so, click here to forward this issue to a colleague or friend.

Book Reviews

Book: Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener (Amazon Link)
This book is a hilarious biography of Ms. Wiener's adventures at various silicon valley startups. The jacket cover sums the book up well: "Uncanny Valley is a rare first-person glimpse into the high-flying, reckless startup culture at a time of unchecked ambition, unregulated surveillance, wild fortune, and accelerating political power. With wit, candor, and heart, Ana deftly charts the tech industry's shift from self-appointed world savior to democracy-endangered liability, alongside a personal narrative of aspiration, ambivalence, and disillusionment."

I laughed out loud several times while reading, and I think that anyone who has worked in tech will recognize some of the characters and company cultures Anna had to endure. Not a lot of grand insights if you are familiar with startup culture on the coasts, but a fun read.

Audio Book: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. (Amazon Link)

The title says it all! A short history of everything: the universe, geology, life, humans, and so on. This book is excellent because it tells the story of the people involved in figuring out how our universe works. The personalities are fascinating and remind us that scientists are people too, with all the same jealousies, arrogance, dumb (and often bad) luck that we all have. I will be listening to this one again, but first, I am listening to a new book by Bryson titled "The Body." Bryson is a fantastic writer, and this worked well as an audiobook. I often read and listen to books to become a better writer, and I learned from Byron. However, I doubt that I will ever be able to weave together a story as he can.

Audio Book: The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV by Robert A. Caro. (Amazon Link)

Caro is the definitive biographer of Lyndon Johnson and an excellent writer to book. I listened to Master of the Senate a long time ago, and this book covers the next chapter in Johnson's life: his transition from Majority Leader to Vice-President to President. Johnson was the best one-on-one politician there has ever been in American Politics. That was a great advantage (passing the voting rights act, Medicare, etc.) and a significant disadvantage in some situations (Vietnam). However, this book is also about the Kennedys and particularity about Robert Kennedy, who hated Johnson with a passion that drove him to make some irrational decisions. For those who didn't live through this time, it is hard to understand how quickly significant events happened in the early 60s: Kennedy's election, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination, etc. A lot happened in the time from Jack Kennedy's death to the 64 election. If you have any interest in politics or history, I think this is a must-read/must-listen.

Note: this is the fourth in a series of five planned books. Caro has stated that he has about 600 pages of the last book complete, but it will take two to ten years to complete. Caro is now 84, and many of his fans are worried that it might not get completed and were particularly peeved when he took the time to write a book about writing in 2019 ("Working").


Trying to keep Exploring-->Learning-->Building--> Sharing.
I am encouraged that people are interested in how AI is weaponized on social media platforms. I have been speaking on a number of podcasts and radio programs about these topics and how the COVID crisis will accelerate changes to Higher Education. I have been on a bunch of podcasts and other programs discussing these topics in the past month. I'll share two recent ones in case you are interested.

BTW, I created a page with resources for those who are interested in AI and Social Media: http://learnabout.ai Let me know if there are resources that I should add!

What I Am Looking Forward To

  1. Getting some reading done in what remains of the summer

  2. Getting responses from you all,
    hearing about you have been creating recently, and the resources/lifehacks you are using!! Just hit the reply button and fill me in!

Thanks for reading and thanks for your insights.

Take care,

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