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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

11 FEBRUARY, 2013

Thomas Edison, Power-Napper: The Great Inventor on Sleep & Success

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“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”

It took Thomas Edison superhuman feats of biology to fuel his astoundingly ambitious to-do list. He reportedly slept a mere three to four hours at night, “regarding sleep as a waste of time, ‘a heritage from our cave days,’” as James Maas tells us in his 1997 productivity bestseller Power Sleep (public library). In fact, Edison is often accused of having forever disrupted our internal clocks with his invention of the lightbulb — some researchers go as far as estimating that artificial light has stripped modern life of 1-2 hours of sleep per night. David K. Randall writes in Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, one of the best science books of 2012:

Thanks to Edison, sunset no longer meant the end of your social life; instead, it marked the beginning of it.

[…]

Yet all of the artificial light in use around the world before Edison developed his lightbulb amounted to the brightness of a match compared to the lights of Times Square.

The Incandescing Electric Lamp, one of Edison's 1,093 inventions, was patented on October 30, 1883. His first functional incandescent electric lamp was successfully tested at his Menlo Park Lab on October 21, 1879, which marked the beginning of the electrical age.

Image: Henry Ford Foundation

Indeed, Edison had so much faith in the power of his invention to liberate people from the burden of sleep that he made some boldly outlandish causal inferences. In Sleep Thieves (public library), Stanley Coren quotes the inventor:

When I went through Switzerland in a motor-car, so that I could visit little towns and villages, I noted the effect of artificial light on the inhabitants. Where water power and electric light had been developed, everyone seemed normally intelligent. Where these appliances did not exist, and the natives went to bed with the chickens, staying there until daylight, they were far less intelligent.

So contemptuous was Edison’s attitude towards sleep that he wrote in 1921:

People will not only do what they like to do — they overdo it 100 per cent. Most people overeat 100 per cent, and oversleep 100 per cent, because they like it. That extra 100 per cent makes them unhealthy and inefficient. The person who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully asleep and never fully awake — they have only different degrees of doze through the twenty-four hours. … For myself I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream. It’s real sleep. When by chance I have taken more I wake dull and indolent. We are always hearing people talk about ‘loss of sleep’ as a calamity. They better call it loss of time, vitality and opportunities. Just to satisfy my curiosity I have gone through files of the British Medical Journal and could not find a single case reported of anybody being hurt by loss of sleep. Insomnia is different entirely — but some people think they have insomnia if they can sleep only ten hours every night.

In hindsight, of course, his assertions were not only scientifically misguided but also rather hypocritical. We now know that sleep is essential to overcoming creative blocks, and it turns out, so did Edison. While he carried his lack of sleep as a kind of badge of honor, he had a duplicitous little secret: Power-napping. Not only were napping cots scattered throughout his property, from labs to libraries, but he was also frequently photographed sneaking his stealthy shut-eye in unusual locations.

Edison's office, with napping cot

Image: Mike Roush

The cot in Edison’s library

Image: Holly Korus

Thomas Edison taking a midday nap under a tree in the Blue Ridge Mountains (1921)

Image: Bettman/Corbis via TIME

Thomas Edison sleeping at his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory (1924)

Image: Henry Ford Foundation

Thomas Edison napping at the Ford Edison Camp in Hagerstown, Maryland, with President Warren Harding (right) and automobile tire magnate Harvey Firestone reading the newspapers in the background (1921)

Image: Edison-Ford Winter Estates Museum / Brian Bennett

'Tearing off a nap after 72 hours of continuous work' (1912)

Image: National Museum of Education

Edison used napping to counterbalance the intensity of his work. Most days, he took one or two brief naps — on his famous cots, outdoors in the grass, and even on a chair or stool if no better option was available. Per multiple first-hand accounts, he always awoke from his naps reinvigorated rather than groggy, ready to devour the rest of the day with full alertness and zest. Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Martin write of the West Orange laboratory in Edison: His Life And Inventions (public library):

As one is about to pass out of the library attention is arrested by an incongruity in the form of a cot, which stands in an alcove near the door. Here Edison, throwing himself down, sometimes seeks a short rest during specially long working hours. Sleep is practically instantaneous and profound, and he awakes in immediate and full possession of his faculties, arising from the cot and going directly “back to the job” without a moment’s hesitation…

Edison’s diary, which he kept only briefly while on vacation in the summer of 1885 and which was eventually published in 1971, reveals an even more conflicted and ambivalent relationship with sleep. On Sunday, July 12, he writes playfully, but in evident circadian distress:

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

Awakened at 5:15 a.m. My eyes were embarrassed by the sunbeams. Turned my back to them and tried to take another dip into oblivion. Succeeded. Awakened at 7 a.m. Thought of Mina, Daisy, and Mamma G. Put all 3 in my mental kaleidoscope to obtain a new combination a la Galton. Took Mina as a basis, tried to improve her beauty by discarding and adding certain features borrowed from Daisy and Mamma G. A sort of Raphaelized beauty, got into it too deep, mind flew away and I went to sleep again.

Awakened at 8:15 a.m. … Arose at 9 o’clock, came down stairs expecting twas too late for breakfast. Twasn’t.

[…]

Had dinner at 3 p.m. Ruins of a chicken, rice pudding.

[…]

The sun has left us on time, am going to read from the Encyclopedia Britannica to steady my nerves and go to bed early. I will shut my eyes and imagine a terraced abyss, each terrace occupied by a beautiful maiden. To the first I will deliver my mind and they will pass it down down to the uttermost depths of silence and oblivion. Went to bed worked my imagination for a supply of maidens, only saw Mina, Daisy and Mamma [G]. Scheme busted. Sleep.

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

On July 14, contradicting his contention that he never dreams, Edison notes:

In evening went out on sea wall. Noticed a strange phosphorescent light in the west, probably caused by a baby moon just going down Chinaward, thought at first the Aurora Borealis had moved out west. Went to bed early dreamed of a demon with eyes four hundred feet apart.

Then, on July 19:

Slept as sound as a bug in a barrel of morphine.

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

Only July 21, another poetic vignette:

Slept splendidly — evidently I was inoculated with insomnic bactilli when a baby. Arose early, went out to flirt with the flowers.

One thing that becomes apparent from Edison’s habits and cognitive dissonance about sleep is his extreme compulsion for productivity. In fact, Dyer and Martin cite an anecdote in which Edison tells his friend Milton Adams:

I have got so much to do and life is so short, I am going to hustle.

And hustle he did. Writing in 1885, Sarah Knowles Bolton marvels at Edison’s remarkable work ethic:

Five feet ten inches high, with boyish but earnest face, light gray eyes, his dark hair slightly gray falling over his forehead, his hat tipped to the back of his head, as he goes ardently to his work, which has averaged eighteen hours a day for ten years, he is indeed a pleasant man to see.

You perceive he is not the man to be daunted by obstacles. When one of his inventions failed — a printing machine — he took five men into the loft of his factory, declaring he would never come down till it worked satisfactorily. For two days, and nights and twelve hours — sixty hours in all — he worked continuously without sleep, until he had conquered the difficulty; and then he slept for thirty hours.

He often works all night, thinking best, he says, when the rest of the world sleeps.

In the same fantastic 1901 tome that gave us Amelia E. Barr’s 9 rules for success, Orison Swett Marden sets out to discover the secret to Edison’s success, camping out in the vicinity of the inventor’s New Jersey laboratory for three weeks awaiting a chance to interview him. When he finally does, he is particularly interested in the inventor’s “untiring energy and phenomenal endurance” and asks 53-year-old Edison a number of questions about his daily routine, including his relationship with sleep:

‘Do you have regular hours, Mr. Edison?’ I asked.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I do not work hard now. I come to the laboratory about eight o’clock every day and go home to tea at six, and then I study or work on some problem until eleven, which is my hour for bed.’

‘Fourteen or fifteen hours a day can scarcely be called loafing,’ I suggested.

‘Well,’ he replied, ‘for fifteen years I have worked on an average of twenty hours a day.’

When he was forty-seven years old, he estimated his true age at eighty-two, since working only eight hours a day would have taken till that time.

Mr. Edison has sometimes worked sixty consecutive hours upon one problem. Then after a long sleep, he was perfectly refreshed and ready for another.

Still, Edison used much of the time others invested in sleep not merely for mindless sleeplessness but for building his networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity:

‘I’ve known Edison since he was a boy of fourteen,’ said another friend; ‘and of my own knowledge I can say he never spent an idle day in his life. Often, when he should have been asleep, I have known him to sit up half the night reading. He did not take to novels or wild Western adventures, but read works on mechanics, chemistry, and electricity; and he mastered them too. But in addition to his reading, which he could only indulge in at odd hours, he carefully cultivated his wonderful powers of observation, till at length, when he was not actually asleep, it may be said he was learning all the time.’

Marden proceeds to inquire about Edison’s legendary work ethic, producing an anecdote you might recall from the timelessly fantastic How To Avoid Work and affirming the recurring theme of focused persistence as the key to success:

‘You lay down rather severe rules for one who wishes to succeed in life,’ I ventured, ‘working eighteen hours a day.’

‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘You do something all day long, don’t you? Every one does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain with most men, that they have been doing something all the time. They have been either walking, or reading, or writing, or thinking. The only trouble is that they do it about a great many things and I do it about one. If they took the time in question and applied it in one direction, to one object, they would succeed. Success is sure to follow such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have an object, one thing, to which they stick, letting all else go. Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.’

Complement with the science of internal time and how dreaming regulates depression.

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31 JANUARY, 2013

Love in the Age of Data: How One Woman Hacked Her Way to Happily Ever After

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Reverse-engineering the algorithms of romance, one picky data point at a time.

The question of how love works has bedeviled writers and scientists for centuries. But how do the dynamics of romance differ in the age of online dating? In Data, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match (public library; UK), digital strategist and journalist Amy Webb — one of the smartest people I know — takes us on her unexpected journey to true love, in which she sets out to “game the system, using math, data, and loopholes” to find the man of her dreams. If it sounds predictable and contrived, rest assured it’s anything but.

Amy writes in the introduction:

I realized that we’ve all been going about finding our matches the wrong way. Whether we’re dating in the real world or online, we’re relying too much now on hope and happenstance. And these days, algorithms, too. We don’t allow ourselves to think about what we really want in a partner, an then we don’t sell ourselves in order to get it.

After a series of bad dates following a major heartbreak, mathematically-driven Amy decided to take a quantitative approach to the playing field and started systematically recording various data points about her dates, revealing some important correlations. After one particularly bad date, she decided to formalize the exercise and wrote down everything that was important to her in a mate — from intellectual overlap to acceptable amount of body hair — eventually coming up with 72 attributes that she was going to demand in any future date. She then broke down these attributes into two tiers and developed a scoring system, assigning specific points to each. For 700 out of a maximum possible 1800, she’d agree to have an email exchange; for 900, she’d go on a date; for 1,500, she’d consider a long-term relationship.

But this, she soon realized, was only half the equation — it only illuminated what she was looking for in a mate. So Amy took the obvious data-driven next step: She set up 10 fake dating profiles, posing as 10 men with high scores on her rating system, and set about using the site as each of these different archetypes. She interacted with a total of 96 women, systematically noting their behaviors and responses, from the way they constructed their profiles to the language they used in interactions to how long they took in responding to messages, reverse-engineering what makes a successful, popular female profile that attracts the very kind of man Amy was looking for.

This allowed her to create a “super profile,” her very own custom “algorithm” of love. Once she looked at her data and set up a real profile for herself, it was a matter of time until she met Brian, fell in love, got married, and started a family — your ordinary happily-ever-after fairy tale ending, with an extraordinary side of quantitative and qualitative magic.

Amy writes:

Think about the way you’ve set up your Facebook profile. And if you don’t use Facebook, instead think about how you’ve described yourself to new people you’ve met recently. You list your favorite foods, bands, books. You talk about cities you want to visit. These aren’t meaningful data points; they’re stylized nuggets of information meant to personify ourselves in a formulaic way to others. A Facebook profile is in many ways an outfit we wear and the accessories and cologne we put with it: we’re hoping to project a particular image in order to socialize with (or avoid, in some cases) a particular group of people.

Dating sites and the algorithms they advertise purport to sort through our personalities, wants, and desires in order to connect us with our best possible matches. Which means that we’ve outsourced not just an introduction , but the consideration of whether or not that man or woman is really our ideal. We’re putting our blind trust in a system that’s meant to do the heavy lifting or figuring out what it is that we really want out of a mate, and what will truly make us happy. This job is being processed using information that we, ourselves, have entered into a computer system. Bad data in equals bad data out. Algorithms that dating sites have spent millions of dollars to refine aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just not as good as we want them to be, because they’re computing our half-truths and aspirational wishes.

One of the possible reasons for this imperfection, Amy points out, is a misalignment of motives. Dating sites make their money either through advertising or through subscriptions, and in either case they benefit from your coming back to the site again and again, spending as much time as possible looking for — but not finding — a mate. (If this sounds cynical, it isn’t any more so than the fundamental reality of the internet itself — it’s the same misalignment of publishers’ financial motives and the audience’s best interest that’s responsible for the web’s infestation of slideshows, pagination, and other vacant content aimed at maximizing pageviews while minimizing your reading experience and enjoyment of the content.)

Though some of the findings are dishearteningly prehistoric, reinforcing gender stereotypes and sexual archetypes — men prefer blondes and are turned off by powerful women, curly women are better off straightening their hair, and using light language bordering on the inane helps women attract more dates — the overall experiment offers some fascinating, and often counterintuitive, modern-day anthropological insights.

In the appendix, Amy shares some of the findings she arrived at in analyzing what makes a successful profile:

  • Use aspirational language; keep it positive and optimistic.
  • Sounding “writerly” doesn’t work in your favor.
  • Don’t recycle your resume on your dating profile.
  • Lead with your hobbies and activities.
  • Stay away from foreign words.
  • Keep your profile pithy, between 90 and 100 words — or about three sentences.
  • Use humor, but beware that sarcasm doesn’t translate well online and tends to come off as anger or aloofness.
  • Don’t talk about your job, especially if what you do is difficult to explain.

Sample Data, A Love Story with Amy’s entertaining, enlightening, infinitely heartening TEDx talk:

Ultimately, the point of Data, A Love Story isn’t to colonize romance by validating the rites of a Universal System where, in order to attain some regressive ideal of love, women dumb themselves down; rather, it is to demonstrate that it’s possible, with the right amount of intelligence, both technical, in reverse-engineering the system’s inner workings, and emotional, in being unafraid to want what one wants, to hack the system — any system — to serve one’s own ideal of love.

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30 JANUARY, 2013

An Illustrated Chronicle of the Space Race

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Astronauts vs. cosmonauts, Apollo vs. Sputnik, and what Gagarin had to do with JFK.

“It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality,” Ray Bradbury poignantly proclaimed in his 1971 discussion with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke on the future of space exploration, as the Space Age — the golden age of breakthroughs in space travel on both sides of the Iron Curtain between 1957 and 1975 — was approaching its nadir. And yet four decades later, we seem to have lost our zest for romance as the future of space exploration hangs in precarious balance.

From London-based illustrator Tom Clohosy Cole and the fine folks at British indie press Nobrow, who brought us Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land, one of the best art books of 2012, comes Space Race (public library; UK) — a vibrantly illustrated chronicle of that bygone era of cosmic dreams. Cole’s vintage-inspired aesthetic, reminiscent of Charley Harper and The Provensens, pays homage to the era’s stylistic sensibilities while remaining refreshingly original.

Space Race comes from Nobrow’s wonderful Leporello series, which also includes Bicycle, inspired by the 2012 Olympics, and the forthcoming Worse Things Happen at Sea, inspired by the tales of doomed voyages passed down across generations of sailors.

Images courtesy Nobrow Press

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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