Saturday, December 20, 2008

Charity creativity - tapping into the collective

With the approach of Christmas and Year End, it is time for personal reflection and review. As such, I will go back on some topics of interest and provide some updates. continues to impress me. For a while, I was inundated with Facebook requests to join different sites that were linking into Freerice.

The site has now expanded their offering quite a bit by now providing different categories for those who want to go beyond words. New categories include areas such as famous painting, languages, math, grammer and geography.

Freerice depends on the masses and social networking to click correct answers to give rice to the poor. The site indicates that since its inception,
55,442,745,510 grains of rice have been donated (20 grains per correct answer) by people around the world who answered questions correctly. This translates into approximately 60 containers of rice. Pretty impressive when they will be delivered.

Other charities have followed suite with a click to give approach. You can help women get free mamograms by clicking on . They additionally solicitate donations and purchases. for the 6 months of 2008, 1,460 free mamograms were donated through clicks and another 1,803 by purchases.

Technology allows charities and non-profits (and companies obviously) to tap into the collective power of the masses. Small activities add up pretty quickly when you are on the web. The first time I came across a similar approach was the seti@home project which used idle computers to do calculations. A couple of months ago, I came across a downloadable game from which biologists learn better ways to build protein molecules by folding, unfolding and nudging them.

Another brilliant application was using security captchas to scan books. This is described in the article "You might be digitizing books on the Web without knowing it thanks to this stealthy anti-spam technology". The article states that the creator estimated that people solve 60 million-plus CAPTCHAs a day, amounting to 150,000 or more man hours of work that can be put to use for the digitization effort.

There are two ways to look at this. The first would be to state it is amazing how many hours are wasted on a global basis on non-value added activities. The other is to find creative approaches to use the collective brainpower and click time to solve problems!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Greetings across all channels

For my birthday this year, I received greeting on many different media and through different channels.

Physically / interactive

  • In person (family and friends). Kisses and hugs included!
  • Phone calls

  • via-chat
Electronically / not interactive
  • Facebook : mostly comments on my wall

  • E-mail (multiple accounts, including Facebook)

  • Voicemail

  • Skype messages (offline)

  • Chat messages (offline)

  • On paper via good old mail

Interesting to me was the fact that I received the largest number of my greetings electronically on my Facebook wall. This is a shift from last year in which the majority were received via e-mail and on the phone. The saddest part for me (as an origami enthusiast) is that I only received a few letters and cards from friends in the mail (or in person).

Time to think about reviving the tradition of mailing letters to our friends... I will admit to being deficient in this area despite the fact that I am a member of elfa and I love paper folding.

Join elfa-e (the envelope and letter folding association's e-mail list) by sending an e-mail to . As an incentive for you start sending beautiful mail; I will send you if you (a subjectively beautiful) envelope if you send me via e-mail your mailing address...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

My word clouds - visualizing key words in my blog and articles...

Putting the url for the PI2K blog into the the wordle online application created the following word cloud:

Pretty impressive! I did not realize how many times I used the word "Chess" in my blog. information, time and rice follow from a frequency perspective. Information and time are themes of the blog. As such, their appearance is expected.

Trying it on the tags of my account (general articles of interest) was even more interesting as it shows the key tags and their frequency of occurance. Science, Health, Privacy, Trends, Politics, Psychology come up on top which mirrors closely my interests.

Try it out and let me know what you think of it.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Be afraid... be really afraid :)

Googling your own name might give you a couple of references to you especially if you do work in the public domain. Add to it what you have put into Facebook, Hi5, MySpace, LinkedIn or Plaxo and a more detailed picture of you is presented to your friends and colleagues of choice.

With most social networks, you may believe that you control your message and the image you project of yourself online given that it is you who chooses the information and at times who can access it.

The reality is much scarier than that. There is a tremendous amount of information about each of us in different databases all over the place. Many companies hold mind boggling amount of data about us from the credit card companies onwards. With every transaction we do, another bit of information is stored about us somewhere. If you go online to read articles and surf the net, your internet provider has a record of all sites visited. We need to add to that the amount of information available at the municipal (property for example), provincial/federal (tax, medical and others)

It was just a matter of time before all this data started to be combined together. If you want to get a glimpse into the future, read "Centers Tap into Personal Databases" from the Washington Post. Fuse in additional information such as phone number, computer IP address and all related activities and a pretty scary picture could emerge especially if rogue elements get their hands on the data or a hard drive is lost by "the forces of good" (Data Leak in Britain Affects 25 Million - NY Times).

One of the things that I found interesting with this presidential campaign is the amount of "data" used by each candidate to attack the other either with respect to voting on issues patterns, specific statements made during past speeches, pictures, ...

We are moving towards living in a very transparent society where most of your moves / interests / preferences / mistakes are for public consumption (or for political gain). The worst part is that you cannot control the information proliferation as anyone could set-up a site or send disparaging information about you to some sites / databases without recourse.

Maybe we should update Warhol's quote on fame to "In the future everyone will have their fifteen minutes of infamy" to reflect the new realities of the searchable net.

PS: I have so many references on the topic... For future entries and possibly an article.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The death of a genius

A chess legend and artist passed away recently. On Friday, January 18th 2008, my spouse told me that she heard on TV that a known chess player has died. I asked her if it was Bobby Fischer and she replied with a yes. In my mind, his physical death confirmed the closure I had with him as a hero for a period of time in my life as chess has been relegated to a far away activity. These days, chess problem solving and some uncompleted games with my young son is the extent of my involvement with it.

Bobby Fischer is the only American Chess World Champion and the one who broke the Soviet’s domination of chess. The story of him winning the championship has been retold countless times and includes elements of intrigue that transcend the chess board.

As a child and a teenager, I was fascinated with chess. Given lots of travel and my study schedule, I ended up reading a lot of chess books and playing chess (including correspondence chess for a while). I loved chess as it involves pattern recognition, strategy, tactics, logic and psychology … It is a fascinating game (and a sport) that survived through centuries even thought it was banned many times by different rulers and different religions at different times. I was fascinated by Sissa’s story of the invention of chess and the evolution of chess (shatranj) through time and geography.

Bobby was one of my chess heroes while going up… I still have “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” in my library even though most of my chess books have been donated or lost over the years. For a while, chess was an addiction for me whereas I would spend hours analyzing games and playing both against real players and computers.

Fischer always impressed by his style and way of playing… through his games, I understood the true meaning of an artist as he would win games by doing very “obvious” and extremely “simple” moves… obvious only after they would be done and simple because they captured the essence of chess…

Reading the (sparse) news about Fischer over the past couple of years created a large disconnect between the image I had of him from reading my books and the real person. Initially, his self imposed exile reminded me of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in which the "individuals of the mind" go on strike, refusing to contribute to the rest of the world. Society, they believe, limits them by interfering with their work and underpays them by appropriating the profits they deserve. These individuals start disappearing from their cities without a trace. Bobby had refused to defend his title in 1975 and then disappeared from the chess world (and lucrative sponsorships) for a long time. His retreat also reminded me of J.D. Salinger of the Catcher and the Rye fame who also became a recluse after writing his best known novel.

Unfortunately, his personal problems would come out every now and then in the news (see this 2003 article in the Guardian). Sexist and racist comments were quoted from him. He got involved with a sect and gave them all his winnings. This his subsequent fight against the sect. The Belgrade incident in which he defied US sanctions. His unfortunate 9-11 comments. All items which showed an unsavory side of him and pointed to some unresolved problems he was facing.

This begs the question if we as a society are failing our geniuses? Are we putting difficult expectations on them and not giving them the space to be integrated in our society? If we take a more popular icon and discuss the derailment of Britney Spears and the undue attention she is getting at a time she needs support (in this case – I do not believe we are talking about genius – my focus is on the potential physiological and mental illness issues of an singer who gets a lot of media attention). What about the case of Chris McKinstry and Pushpinder Singh, the two Artificial Intelligence pioneers who ended up taking their lives separately not too long ago. We as a society have a lot to think about when it comes to talent, innovation and the reckless way we treat and support each other.

If I think of Bobby Fischer, I would like to think of his chess playing and his achievement in popularizing chess in North America. If I would imagine him post his 1972 coronation as world champion, I would have loved to see more of his games, and, most importantly, how he would approach playing against the top computer programs. Computer chess has moved forward tremendously in the past couple of decades with world champions succumbing to their tremendous calculating abilities.

Let’s for this time, separate the genius from the individual and let the rest fall into its rightful place…