Algorithms That Write

The New York Times published an intriguing quiz demonstrating how far computer algorithms have progressed, or failed depending on your POV, in the area of writing. You’re asked to read 8 separate passages of text and decide if each was written by a computer or a human. Sounds easy right? I did pretty good, scoring 7 out of 8 correct! Give it a try and see how you do.

It’s surprising, and perhaps a little disconcerting, to think more of what we’re reading online can and will be generated by algorithms rather than humans.
Type “robo-news” into your favorite search engine and you’ll quickly find The Associated Press among a growing number of big news organizations that have begun using robots to write stories.
But it’s not just texts being reproduced by computers. If you’ve been on Youtube lately you’ve probably come across the odd press release or news clip accompanied by a crude artificial sounding voice —robotic-like, hence the name robo-journalism or robo-news, created presumably without human intervention.

Kristian Hammond, co-founder of Narrative Science, a company producing software that translates data into “narratives”, estimates that 90 percent of news could be algorithmically generated (that is, automated) by the mid-2020s.

While this all sounds a tad dystopian let’s imagine disgraced new anchor Brian Williams as a candidate for algorithmic replacement in light of his foggy memory regarding details of the Iraq War. Curiously Mr. Williams hasn’t Tweeted anything in 5 years fueling speculation that he is not a real person but in fact a malfunctioning prototype created by NBC through a joint venture with ILM and Google’s Ray Kurzweil. Well I suppose the cat’s finally out of the bag and it’s back to the drawing board to fix Williams’ faulty memory chip.
But seriously, here’s an interesting question: would a robotic news anchor be more or less prone to making errors similar to Mr. Williams’ gross embellishment of the facts? Should Wolf Blitzer and Scott Pelley start looking for new gigs? Perhaps not just yet.

Though if this trend continues it’s not far-fetched to think journalists, and certainly many other professions, could be partially or completely displaced by advances in computer automation technology. Just as manufacturing jobs have been gradually eliminated over the years, so too writers performing repetitive work could be vulnerable to algorithms that will gladly churn out formulaic written pieces (e.g. think sports scores and financial earnings reports) faster and cheaper than most willing humans.

image credit: progue.co

Where Are All The Electric Bikes?

Harley-Davidson-Livewire-Age-Of-UltronSunday afternoon I braved the cold and headed down to the annual winter Toronto Motorcycle Show with one of my riding buddies. If you live north of the 44th (north) parallel and you love riding you know exactly what we’re going through this time of the year waiting patiently for temperatures to rise.

It was great to see the new 2015 bike models up close and under one roof. Though I couldn’t help but wonder, where are all the electric bike offerings from the major manufacturers?

Just like all the celebrities and reporters who were dumbfounded by Lady Gaga’s performance at the Oscars last Sunday night I found it strange to note the lack of electric motorcycle technologies on display.

Some of the most anticipated motorcycles coming to market this year have stuck with surprisingly old engine tech, yet have been jammed full of electronic gizmos. In the sport bike category KTM was showing-off their much anticipated RC390 (powered by a 1-cylinder 4-stroke engine), Kawasaki their pricey Ninja H2 (powered by an in-line 4-cylinder engine), and Yamaha their YZF R-1 (powered by an in-line 4-cylinder engine) billed as the closest thing to a MotoGP bike Yamaha has ever produced, though I’m not too sure about the front LED headlight placement and design —otherwise a visceral statement of Yamaha’s racing prowess.
2015 Yamaha YZF-R1

Yes, these new motorcycles are all really exciting for sport performance junkies like myself, but it’s long overdue consumers be given viable alternatives to the old gasoline powered bikes that still saturate the market. Sadly the motorcycle industry, like the automotive industry, seems painfully slow to embrace change.

The one notable exception at this year’s show was Harley Davidson. Shocking, yes I know! Their new project Livewire electric concept was on display and caught my eye. Hmm… this is the same bike shown for a split-second in the latest Avengers: Age Of Ultron trailer.
It might be just a prototype, and HD have yet to say if they’re serious about putting the Livewire or any other electrics into production, but hats off to you anyway for at least taking the first step.

Jay Leno did a piece on the HD Livewire and a brief history of electric motorcycles on his YouTube channel noting the first electric bike was patented back in 1897. So EVs aren’t exactly new, rather abandonned technology (for 100 years no less!), as gasoline powered cars and motorcycles took over the market.
Interestingly Jay also pointed out some of the earliest electric bike designs (circa 1911) were claiming a range of 75 to 100 miles (120 to 160 kms) on a single battery charge, citing an old Popular Mechanics advertisment. Well, perhaps a trifle exaggeration of the day when you learn the HD Livewire prototype gets just 53 miles (85kms) on a single charge. Nevertheless, Triumph, Ducati, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda, Suzuki, KTM, and all the other major motorcycle manufacturers, isn’t it about time you stepped up to the plate?

Cold And Healthy

It’s cold outside. A typical frigid mid-January night here in Toronto. It was the kind of day your eyebrow hairs would start to feel like popsicles if you were caught outside for more than 10 minutes.

I missed hitting the gym again this evening because of a few ongoing client commitments. I imagine the January people will be infiltrating the squat racks —Thursday nights are notoriously crowded— so think I’ll stay home instead and get some work done. And now I find myself rolling out the night with a blog post, my first since October of last year, with a good cup of pesticide-free tea.

In the past I’d usually hit weights 3 or more times a week but struggled with constant muscle soreness and mediocre gains. Then about 2 years ago I discovered Mike Mentzer’s high intensity training approach (funny, this sounds like a paid advertisment; Mike Mentzer has long since passed away). After reading most of Mentzer’s books and embracing his philosophy I’ve been able to drastically reduce the amount of time I spend working out and, significantly, increase strength gains while shortening recovery time.

Mike Mentzer was probably one of the smartest professional bodybuilders alive because he rigorously espoused the concept of brief, infrequent, and intense weight training as an effective means to gaining strength. The Mentzer approach, or H.I.T. as it’s called today, focuses almost exclusively on high intensity anaerobic exercise with virtually no aerobic (cardiovascular) training. H.I.T. workouts are structured around using heavy weights in a very controlled manner; strict form, low reps and very few sets taken to momentary muscular failure.
By contrast, the fitness industry still preaches the volume-based approach: lower weight, higher rep, larger sets, longer workouts. This is the kind of training Schwarzenegger popularized in the 70’s and the kind of training that, in my opinion, invites injury and overtraining, unless of course you’re jacked on gear.

Strength training is not an endurance sport. If you’re in the gym for upwards of 90 minutes or longer it’s questionable whether your intensity is sufficient.

Getting a flatter stomach is probably the fitness holy grail for most people who think they need to do 30 or 40 minutes of cardio and hundreds of sit-ups several times a week to get rid of excess fat around their waist. No. Not at all necessary. Want a lean midsection? Stengthen your core with basic compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and rows with as much weight as you can handle; Do chin-ups and dips —exercises that require you to lift your entire bodyweight— instead of isolation movements like concentration curls and tricep kick-backs that work fewer muscles.
On your working-set for each exercise (that’s the set where you’re giving it all you’ve got) the last couple reps should feel almost impossible. Two workouts each week will more than suffice, coupled with a caloric food deficit (if you’re looking to lose weight) or high protein (if gaining lean muscle mass is your objective) and you’ll be strong in no time.

Building physical strength helps you mentally endure the daily stresses of work and perform with greater creativity and lateral thinking ability.

. . .

My home office is located in a rather cold and drafty area of our house that never seems to quite get warm despite my constant fidgeting with the thermostat controls. Guess I’ll put on an extra layer or two, though research into the benefits of being cold includes something called non-shivering thermogenesis. This is basically our body’s response to cold environments whereby heat-generating metabolic functions are increased which help us to burn more calories. This may explain why people from colder environments tend to be leaner than people who live in warmer climates. With that in mind perhaps it makes more sense to book your next spring break vacation to Anchorage or Prague rather than Cancun or Miami beach.

Knock on wood, I’ve been completely healthy and virus-free this winter and able to miraculously thwart the usual crop of ailments making their rounds (e.g. flu, common head cold, cough, dry skin, chapped lips).
Last winter was a different story though. I got a nasty head cold and suffered from a dry hacking cough that seemed to carry on for weeks.  But what am I doing differently this season? I’m not entirely sure, but there are a few things I’ve followed that I’m convinced have helped me to stay away from the doctor’s office and the medicine aisle of the pharmacy:

  • avoid all liquid and antibacterial hand soaps and sanitizers. I only wash my hands and body with natural soap (e.g.  Alaffia GOOD). Many liquid soaps contain endocrine disruptors that aren’t good for you.
  • avoid all vitamin supplements. Vitamins are complete nonsense unless you’re 80 yrs old or suffering from a severe nutrient deficiency. Strive to eat a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables instead of popping pills and powders.
  • minimize or avoid exposure to scented products. Fragrant products are typically loaded with phthalates and other unpronounceable ingredients. Use fragrance-free products whenever possible.
  • don’t eat margarine. And avoid all non-butter spreads; they’re loaded with a ton of crap. Just eat butter!
  • stay away from all foods containing soy lecithin. This sounds easy but it’s way harder than you think. Soy lecithin is found in so many products, particularly packaged snacks, and is considered a major food allergen.
  • drink lots of water. Hydrate and your body mind and soul will flourish.
  • stop eating sugar. Be ruthless with the amount of sugar in your diet. If possible stay away from eating anything with refined sugar. Try naturally occurring sugars (e.g. pure maple syrup, fruits/berries) if you need a sweet fix.
  • sleep in cool dark room. The darker your bedroom the better. This drives my spouse crazy because she likes to look outside when she falls asleep. But light pollution in the form of a bright room is scientifically known to supress melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our circadian sleep/wake cycles.

Disagree? Think otherwise? Tweet me.