Monthly Archives: August 2011

Learning to code again

A few days ago one of my friends tweeted a link to Codeacademy. As you will see when you go there, which you should do immediately after reading this blog post, it teaches you to code by immersing you in lessons right in your web browser. It pushes you in the pool, but you can see it’s a shallow pool, and the water is pretty warm.

You begin thinking you’re just typing. But before you realize what you’re doing, the site’s like, “Oh, btw you’re learning JavaScript right now.” I’m a big fan of tricking people into learning. By telling you that you’re programming after you’ve already completed part of a lesson, the site’s gotten you past the hardest part of programming. Well, at least the part that keeps 99% of people from doing it. You know, the part where you have to overcome all the preconceived notions about programming you’ve accumulated throughout your life that leads you to believe computer programming is something only geniuses do, so if you’re not a genius you shouldn’t even bother.

It came easily to me though. I found it fun, and satisfying in the same way I used to find solving math problems satisfying. A few lessons in, I started realizing that the stuff I was learning on Codeacademy about JavaScript was very similar to the things I learned in the C++ Intro Programming course I took in Engineering school. It’s been six years though, and I had assumed I’d forgotten everything and that my propensity for programming had somehow degraded because I’m 24 now and probably past the stage where I can soak up information like a sponge. Even though I completed all the courses on the site in three days, that stuff was very introductory, so it’s too early to tell if that’s the case. But I have a hunch it was just something that I told myself to avoid trying and failing. I think that lots of other people do that too, and that sites like this can help break through that mental blockade.

There are a few issues with the site though, mostly with how the instructions are worded. I don’t think the lessons would have come quite so easily to me if I hadn’t taken a C++ course and been familiar with if/for/while/do while loops and the basic programming terminology, which they don’t often bother to explain. Probably because it’s a site made by programmers, not English majors, which you can’t really fault them for.

I emailed one of the founders,  Zach Sims, to tell him his site is awesome but that there are some language barriers. He said he knew, and that the site wasn’t really ready for launch. They wanted feedback so they released the prototype on Hacker News, and they ended up with more users than they knew what to do with. Of all the problems to have, that’s a good one. I just hope they hurry up and develop the site, because I have exhausted the material and I need more lessons or I will be sad. I finally found a productive insomnia activity I enjoy and it was over so soon! Typical. But I guess I don’t have to be scared of programming anymore, and I should maybe take an IRL class so I can build my own websites instead of criticizing everyone else’s.

I wanna be a cyborg

Last year I wrote an article for The Atlantic Tech called “I Am a Cyborg and I Want My Google Implant Already.” The article includes an excerpt where I precociously-but-charmingly (I hope) butt into an interview between my awesome then-boss Nate Silver and Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian, who is an incredibly good-humored man, to prod Hal about the possibility of a Google brain implant.

Little did I know that the very next day following its publication, Atlantic editor James Bennet would ask Erik Schmidt, then-CEO of Google, about my article and Hal’s enthusiasm towards the implant at the Washington Ideas Forum.

From a recap of the session by Derek Thompson:

The end of the interview turned to the future of technology. When Bennet asked about the possibility of a Google “implant,” Schmidt invoked what the company calls the “creepy line.”

“Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it,” he said. Google implants, he added, probably crosses that line.

Ha. Well there goes that idea. Vetoed. I was a bit discouraged until some Italian journalists decided that my advocacy for the creation of a Google Brain implant qualified me for their Top 100 Global Thinkers list. You can find me at number 99, right above Cesare Geronzi, who Time Magazine has dubbed “Italy’s most powerful banker.”

I think it’s all hilarious, and have made the signature on my Nexus One “Sent via my Google Implant” to commemorate this snowball of an article. Anyways, I thought this post should probably live on in my blog:


Sep 30 2010, The Atlantic Tech:

About nine months ago, I sat in a conference room at Google Headquarters in Mountain View with my boss, Nate Silver, and the company’s Chief Economist, Hal Varian, talking about the Google of 2020.

The previous night, Nate and I had been hanging out with one of my childhood friends in downtown San Francisco, brainstorming questions to ask Hal in our interview the following day.

I’d been working with Nate as his research assistant on a book project that examines forecasting and prediction in a variety of different fields. Going off on a tangent, we conceived of the concept of a Google Singularity — an event where the amount of information known by Google surpasses the amount of information it’s possible to know. I laughed as Nate drew a graph on a piece of my friend’s Hello Kitty stationary illustrating the theoretical point where this event would occur.

In the interview the following day, after a good 45 minutes of serious discussion about Google’s search algorithms and new projects going on in the company, Nate brought up the Google Singularity. Hal got a kick out of this concept, and we mused about the things the future of Google might produce, one such thing being a “Google implant” that would allow one to browse the Web simply by thinking.

Nate: What will Google look like in 2020?
Hal: Now you Google things on your computer — of course. And you Google things on your phone. That’s the next stage. And I believe — people may laugh — but I think there will be an implant. So you’ll have it there, and I won’t say it’s necessarily Google, I’ll say the Web, it will access the Web of information.
Arikia: Sign me up when that happens.
Hal: You want your implant?
Arikia: I want it now.
Hal: Yeah! Right, see? There are a lot of people that say that. I think you will be continuously connected to the Web in 2020. You’ll be able to pull information in, information out, you’ll be able to record information. And you can do all these things now; you’re recording this conversation and you can play it back later.
Nate: Sure. But you think that soon, by 2020?
Hal: 2020! That’s away 10 years! Look at where we are and look at where we were 10 years ago. Google’s only 10 years old. So uh, yeah, I think so. We’ll certainly have some kind of implant interface by then, in my opinion.
Nate: Will it require surgery? Or will it require some kind of earpiece that you can… I don’t know…
Hal: I don’t know either.
Nate: Are there people at the firm working on that?
Hal: Not that I know of. Although there are people always working on user interfaces, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was thinking about it. There are people working on things that display text on your glasses.

After that, the conversation veered to topics like The Cloud, Steve Mann and real-time search. As Nate always does when an interview is wrapping up, he invited me to ask any questions I may have been sitting on. So I asked Hal: “Are you going to get the implant?”

“The implant!” He exclaimed good-naturedly. “Yes, I want an implant! And we’ll see if it will be the Google implant.”

Just to be clear: This in no way indicates that a Google implant is in, or anywhere near production. But the demand for enhanced cyborgification is being driven by technophiles everywhere. Kevin Kelly recently wrote that “our minds are being rewired by our culture” (Domesticated Cyborgs, 9/6/2010), and for some people like me who grew up in the post-Internet boom era, they already have been.

I got my first computer and Internet connection in 1994 when I was eight years old, so my growing mind learned to navigate the physical world and the online world simultaneously. Some mental processes that were critical to previous generations are obsolete to mine. Bulk memorization is the new manual labor; navigating user interfaces is what counts. Acknowledging the way the Internet has shaped my brain during development in these respects, I would consider myself a cyborg already.

By the time I finished elementary school, writing letters to communicate across great distances was an archaic practice. When I graduated middle school, pirating music on Napster was the norm; to purchase was a fool’s errand. At the beginning of high school, it still may have been standard practice to manually look up the answer to a burning question (or simply be content without knowing the answer). Internet connection speeds and search algorithms improved steadily over the next four years such that when I graduated in the class of 2004, having to wait longer than a minute to retrieve an answer was an unbearable annoyance and only happened on road trips or nature walks. The summer before my freshman year of college was the year the Facebook was released to a select 15 universities, and almost every single relationship formed in the subsequent four years was prefaced by a flood of intimate personal information.

Now, I am always connected to the Web. The rare exceptions to the rule cause excruciating anxiety. I work online. I play online. I have sex online. I sleep with my smartphone at the foot of my bed and wake up every few hours to check my email in my sleep (something I like to call dreamailing).

But it’s not enough connectivity. I crave an existence where batteries never die, wireless connections never fail, and the time between asking a question and having the answer is approximately zero. If I could be jacked in at every waking hour of the day, I would, and I think a lot of my peers would do the same. So Hal, please hurry up with that Google implant. We’re getting antsy.