Quantifying the unquantifiable

60 trillion

2.5 billion years


Lately, there has been some interesting takes on quantifying the unquantifable, on a variety of topics. We always like to see things quantified, but sometimes the result of quantifying things that can’t really be quantified doesn’t really get the desired results. For example the above numbers, they’re very hard to relate to.

First, $60 trillion. This is, according to a new study in Nature, an estimate of the cost of all the methane gas that will be released from a melting Arctic. To put this in context, this is almost the size of the world economy (the GDP of the world is approximately $70 trillion per year, nominal). This of course hinges on tons of assumptions, some of which people are already saying is wrong, but regardless, the amount is just…staggering. It should make anyone realize that our economy and life will be irreversibly changed in a not-too-far future.

Second, 2.5 billion years. This is the aggregate amount of life lost in China due to pollution. It’s a simple calculation, just 5 years per each of the 500 million people in Northern China. But when you arrive at 2.5 billion years, again, you arrive at a staggering number. That’s almost 60% of the entire life span of the earth, just by taking a fraction of the lives of half of the now living Chinese. Even if that saying about more people living on earth now would be larger than the number who’s ever lived turned out to be wrong, it still shows what an extraordinary amount of lives are on earth right now.

Third, $121/day. This is a fun one, apparently the going rate for putting an ad on your thigh. Of course, this is in Japan, where advertising has always moved leaps and bounds ahead of advertising in the rest of the world. Hard to know how they arrived at that number, it’s not really a question you can put to your average focus group. As wrong as this is overall, it also seems illogical that it is in one of the world’s richest countries that people literally “sell their bodies”, versus in poorer countries, where you could see a larger opportunity for it. Hey, Nestle! One to consider.

Not judging a life until it’s over (musings on reading the Economist’s obituaries)

Reading and re-reading the obituaries in the Economist of the last few weeks: We’ve had a Burmese heroin magnate, a female Soviet bomber pilot, a lonely and misunderstood inventor and computer engineer, and a fugitive billionaire commodities trader. The Economist of course has the tradition of writing the most exquisite obituaries, finding Chekhovian beauty below the surface in the least obvious lives. They always transcend the simple descriptions and headline-friendly lines that most media turn to at the time of someone’s death.

I was reminded of this when listening to the podcast of a story in Aeon magazine, by Julian Baggini, discussing the role of philosophy in coming to terms with death (one’s own and that of those close to us). He quotes Aristotle in saying that you can not give a balanced judgment of a life until it’s truly over. People maintain the ability to redeem themselves or, alternatively, erase all earlier achievements at any time up until the end. A sad example of this was the recent story in the Atlantic of how Linus Pauling was able to negate two Nobel prizes with later ill-judged and stubborn vitamin opinions, making him much less of a mainstay in today’s pantheon of great minds. Also thought of this when I read the NYT review of the Hannah Arendt film, how opinions of a person’s thoughts and expressions during a life are constantly reevaluated.

I guess the relevant example in today’s world is the times you go through your Twitter feed to prune it, and find yourself removing accounts of deceased people. Hopefully those last tweets are significant of your earlier output. The inimitable and irreplaceable Christopher Hitchens‘ last tweet was a link to a Vanity Fair article. Shows that he worked until the end, which is an inspiration for us all.


Facebook as the new AOL, walled gardens and reverse innovation

The announcement of Facebook for Every Phone reaching 100 million users is really impressive. It’s astounding that the technology exists to actually deliver some of the core features of Facebook (photos, news feed, messenger) onto “dumb” (feature) phones. The technology is from Snaptu, that Facebook acquired in 2011.

Jonathan Zittrain, in the APM Marketplace Tech podcast the other morning, mentioned one consequence of this, which is the possibility that Facebook would be the new AOL, as a walled garden for many users. As we’ve heard before, for many users in developing countries (can we please soon come up with a better, less-condescending term for the countries that provide almost half of the world’s GDP growth?), Facebook IS the Internet. As many users in the 90’s can testify to, using only AOL or Compuserve soon started feeling limited. But since we recently saw that there are still people on AOL dial-up (!) I guess Facebook will be able to maintain revenues from that walled garden for quite some time.

There is also another Facebook initiative, Facebook Zero, that aims to bring Facebook features to phones using no data at all, just text.

What is most interesting about these is what we can learn from them about reverse innovation, i.e. what Facebook can apply from their slimmed-down products to their richer, “developed world” products.  Reverse innovation has been used successfully by companies such as GE and Unilever that have large presences in developing markets where the parameters for competition are very different, such as India. To be mean, for Nokia, it seems their reverse innovation (also quite a loaded, non-PC term btw) has gone in reverse, since their only good innovations are in developing countries, and their innovations in developed markets is now innovation for innovation’s sake, not for any consumer need. We could all benefit from a faster-loading Facebook app on our iPhones.

IFTTT and the changing Internet

The Internet is changing beneath our feet. No longer content with just linking stationary computers, we now have Internet everywhere (with all mobile and wearable devices hooked up to the Internet), a burgeoning Internet of things (with physical products communicating with each other and our computers), and even a coming inter-species Internet (communicating with animals).
In a very interesting interview today on the GigaOm podcast, IFTTT is saying that they’d like to be the hyperlink of the Internet of things, the connector that makes it natural for people to use it.
I don’t know yet if they’ll become that pervasive, but it’s a wonderful service, and they just released their iPhone app, which brings in new channels native to the iPhone, so if you haven’t yet started using it, try it out now!
An awesome example of IFTTT powering a virtual-physical application is the example Stacey Higginbotham gives of using an IFTTT recipe and a WeMo switch to turn on her fan when a stock drops below a certain price. Look forward to IFTTT powering more physical, smart home appliances soon, especially as their partnership with smart things goes live.

Rap albums listicles gone overboard: food and cars for Jay and Ye

The usage of listicles on the web seems to be going overboard these days, especially for rap albums.

First Complex gave Yeezus the listicle treatment for all car mentions on the album, and now Thrillist even looks at what food and drink Jay is rapping about on Magna Carta Holy Grail.

What does make the food and drink references slightly more interesting, though are Jay’s hyping (e.g. his Absolut Vodka movie) or bashing of brands (e.g. his take-down of Cristal).

What would be even more fun is to find out which of the food and drink references are actually slang for something else, like when Wu Tang used to rap about Ice Cream.

Today’s digital-philosophy mash-up: Sartre meets Foursquare

The BBC Click podcast today mentioned a fantastic new, anti-social, app, actually called Hell is Other People. Meant more a satirical joke than an actual app, it nevertheless provides fully fledged “anti-social” functionality, by telling you where to go to get as far away as possible from your Foursquare friends.

It is an awesome idea, and a welcome commentary on the increasing need to socialize everything we do. Philosophically, we are facing a conundrum as to what it means to live as humans completely socially, devoid of our normal boundaries which separate private and public. Sartre would go insane at the idea of Facebook (although he might like the nihilism of Snapchat). It will take us a long time to figure out what it means for our sanity. I look forward to discuss this with my all-digital children when they’re old enough to realize there was a past before YouTube and iPads.

It makes me long for the Economist to bring back their Thinking Space app, which was meant to show places in the city where one could think in peace. But maybe another app can’t be the solution to being too digital? FastCompany tells us to #unplug, but that can’t be the solution either.

Experiments in low-budget IQ and knowledge hacking

Somewhat inspired by Mark Zuckerberg’s annual challenge (although I can never commit to just one), this year I’m doing a low-budget experiment in IQ hacking. Since Dave Asprey’s $20,000 EEG neurofeedback machine seems a bit expensive (although cool), I’m doing this the simpler way, with just doing Lumosity training every day for a year, to see if that has any effects. Will do regular standardized IQ measurements and see if it has any measurable effects.

Another wonderful learning/knowledge hacking tool, which is sure to also have a positive effect on the brain and mental state, is Memrise, where you can learn a number of topics using cognitively adapted and gamified methods. The app just came out, highly recommended.


Mini creative tip of the day

There’s a lot of good literature out there on how to improve our creativity. I was reading this great article on Buffer about how to make time last longer, which suggests that simply by doing new things, the brain thinks more time has passed, and you remember it as longer. It reminded me of one of the tips on how to make your brain more creative in Micael Dahlen’s book Creativity Unlimited: Thinking Inside the Box for Business Innovations.

He suggested simply to get out of bed in a different way every morning (left/right side, bottom/top, jump, skip, roll, etc). This would theoretically create new neuron pathways. Even if it doesn’t, it feels like just the act of inventing new ways of getting out of bed would help you jumpstart your brain in a good way in the morning. Also fits well within this morning routine suggested by the Search Inside Yourself Institute, since getting out of bed in the way of a 5-year old is bound to put a smile on your face.


Industries at risk of being flipped by 3D (and 4D!) printing

3D printing is one of the technologies with the largest transformative power and therefore the highest potential of flipping and disrupting several industries among the technologies to appear in the last couple of years. Given its democratizing nature, with radically decreasing the costs to consumers and providing them previously unprecedented value, it is such a clear blue ocean strategy enabler (a technology that underlies the creation of many blue ocean strategies). Gabor George Burt wrote about this also recently.
An Economist special report last year described how it will change manufacturing, which is of course the most obvious effect. However, over the last year, while the technology is still far from reaching customers in any meaningful way (even if I’m of course keen on getting a makerbot!), we’re already seeing more and more examples of industries that might be flipped. It remains to be seen how changed these industries will be. Some recent interesting examples include:

1. Architecture. A recent Click podcast discussed how we might soon have printable houses, or at least part of houses. Eventually, we should only need star architects who take the profession further, and the run-of-the-mill houses we can just download and print ourselves. If we could couple this with recyclable architecture and pop-up architecture, things could get really interesting. On a related topic, btw, I was really interested to see that IKEA is partnering with the UN to build refugee shelters. Just don’t call them Björn.

2. Tourism. Another recent Click podcast talked about digital tourism, which suggests that digital technologies probably hold more upside than downside to the tourism industry (smartphone apps making travel easier, like triposo and tripwolf, should be a larger effect than people staying at home and taking staycations watching underwater Google Streetview, for example). A fun example of a potentially severe threat to tourism was given in this Big Think article, though – printing famous sculptures at home. Couple this with art museums Google Streetview, and you have soon eliminated the need to travel!

3. Medicine. With 4D printing, 3D-printed structures can adapt to their surroundings with time being the fourth dimension, as detailed in this Guardian article with a link to a TED speech on the topic. As we get closer to the DNA scale with these technologies, the possibilities seem endless.