Changing Google Ad Formats – Oct 14 2014

Slideshow of Changing Google Ad Formats:

In response, the three leading U.S. search engines have done little, making it difficult for users to distinguish ads from “natural” search results. Google earlier this year stopped placing colored shading around ads, and now displays a small yellow “Ad” label next to some paid links. The shading of ads on Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing search results is nearly imperceptible; both search engines label ads with a single line of light-gray text.

“Consumers are being tricked,” says Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy group whose complaints helped push the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in 2002 to first issue guidelines recommending that search engines clearly delineate listings that are ads.

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Peter Thiel on Creativity & Asperger’s

From Peter Thiel:

“So many of the successful companies are formed by people who seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s,” Thiel said, referring to Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning type of autism. People with Asperger’s often have limited socialization skills and, he said, are unafraid of pursuing ideas seen as strange. “What is it about our society where anyone who does not have Asperger’s gets talked out of their heterodox ideas?”

“I often think of business school—of people who go to business school—as being sort of the anti-Asperger’s extreme,” he said.

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Clay Shirky on Distraction in Classrooms

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (‘Lids down’, in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting — when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.

So this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)” Here’s why I finally switched from ‘allowed unless by request’ to ‘banned unless required’.

We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.

This effect takes place over more than one time frame — even when multi-tasking doesn’t significantly degrade immediate performance, it can havenegative long-term effects on “declarative memory”, the kind of focused recall that lets people characterize and use what they learned from earlier studying. (Multi-tasking thus makes the famous “learned it the day before the test, forgot it the day after” effect even more pernicious.)

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Hacking & Creativity

From The Word Hacker by Paul Graham

To add to the confusion, the noun “hack” also has two senses. It can be either a compliment or an insult. It’s called a hack when you do something in an ugly way. But when you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that’s also called a hack. The word is used more often in the former than the latter sense, probably because ugly solutions are more common than brilliant ones.

Believe it or not, the two senses of “hack” are also connected. Ugly and imaginative solutions have something in common: they both break the rules. And there is a gradual continuum between rule breaking that’s merely ugly (using duct tape to attach something to your bike) and rule breaking that is brilliantly imaginative (discarding Euclidean space).

 Paul Graham on the “Hack” question in the YC Interview

There’s one question that acts like a wildcard, at least for me:

Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage.

If this wasn’t already clear, we’re not looking for the sort of obedient, middle-of-the-road people that big companies tend to hire. We’re looking for people who like to beat the system. So if the answer to this question is good enough, it will make me go back and take a second look at an application that otherwise seemed unpromising. In fact, I think there are people we’ve invited to interviews mainly on the strength of their answer to this question.

YC Question on Hacking:

Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage

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John Cleese on Creativity

Genius Video by John Cleese on how to be creative

Excerpts from BrainPickings on the 5 factors that drive creativity

  1. Space (“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”)
  2. Time (“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”)
  3. Time (“Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original,” and learning to tolerate thediscomfort of pondering time and indecision.)
  4. Confidence (“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”)
  5. Humor (“The main evolutionary significance of humoris that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”)


More from Brain Pickings:


Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.

We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.

Cleese goes on to caution against a trap in this duality, one particularly hazardous in politics:

To be at our most efficient, we need to be able to switch backwards and forward between the two modes. But — here’s the problem — we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.

This is particularly true, for example, of politicians. The main complaint about them from their nonpolitical colleagues is that they’ve become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis that they almost completely lose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode.

Cleese concludes with a beautiful articulation of the premise and promise of his recipe for creativity:

This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: If just you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.

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Distraction Free Phone



Aug 21 2014

My year with a distraction-free iPhone (and how to start your own experiment)

In 2012, I realized I had a problem.

My iPhone made me twitchy. I could feel it in my pocket, calling me, like the Ring called Bilbo Baggins. It distracted me from my kids. It distracted me from my wife. It distracted me anytime, anywhere. I just didn’t have the willpower to ignore email and Twitter and Instagram and the whole world wide web. Infinity in my pocket was too much.

I wanted to get control, but I didn’t want to give up my iPhone altogether. I loved having Google Maps and Uber and Find Friends and an amazing camera.

So I decided to try an experiment. I disabled Safari. I deleted my mail account. I uninstalled every app I couldn’t handle. I thought I’d try it for a week.

A month went by, then two, and I was loving my newfound freedom. I wrote up a post about my experience on Medium, called The distraction-free iPhone.

Then a lot of people read the post. It got over 80,000 views on Medium. Lifehacker ran it, and it got 70,000 more. Gizmodo ran it, and it got another 150,000. Obviously, other people were interested in the topic. (It’s not because I’m an interesting writer. For comparison, the next thing I wrote, about zombies, got less than 500 views.)

Sure, most of those bajillion readers — especially on Gizmodo — wanted to talk about what an idiot I am. “Why doesn’t he just buy a flip phone?!”

But a lot of people were supportive. And a lot of them actually tried it. Even some of my friends gave it a shot.

The biggest victory was when my wife made her own iPhone distraction-free. This, after 6 months of telling me I was nuts. You bet I was stoked! (Only you can’t really gloat in that situation. Not the “enlightened guy who’s too good for his iPhone” thing to do, is it?)

Anyway, I still get a lot of people asking: am I still doing it? Some of those people are probably too impatient to read this long boring intro. So for all you skimmers out there, here’s the answer in big letters:

Yes, I’m still doing it. Over one year later.

Oh great. Here comes the self-righteous part.

Over the last 12 months I’ve learned to enjoy (or at least, be OK with) moments of boredom. I reach for my phone a lot less often. It’s probably just my imagination, but it feels like it’s easier to concentrate when I need to get things done or tackle a big project.

Times on the bus when I would’ve checked email, I listen to music or just look around. I even started meditating on the bus (yes, really! And, uh… please don’t mug me) using an app called Calm. I can’t believe I’m the hippy dippy weirdo medidating on the bus using an app. But I’m actually a lot happier doing that than I was with my tweets.

At home, the phone becomes part of the stereo, and nothing more. At work, I set the thing down a lot. Nearly once a day I forget where it is — something I’d have never been able to imagine in 2012.

The weird part is this: This experiment was supposed to be a hardship. Now? It feels like the easy way out. I not only don’t want to go back, going back sounds really… difficult. Think of all the things I’d have to keep track of. Managing notifications and streams and pings and bleeps can add up to a lot of work.

The 24 hour experiment

If you’re intrigued, I encourage you to try going distraction-free for 24 hours. It’s pretty easy to set up on the iPhone, and most people who’ve done it really enjoy the break.

Now — there’s no pressure here. Some people seem to handle their smartphones just fine. For the rest of us, this is a worthy experiment.

1. Remove Safari

Safari is a big problem for me because it opens a window into a limitless universe of, y’know, everything. Infinity. At any given moment, there’s something super interesting on the Internet I haven’t seen before. Actually, I’m gonna go check real quick. NO! Must… finish… iPhone post.

You can’t delete Safari, but you can do this: Go into Settings, then Restrictions. Turn ‘em on, and then you can turn off Safari. Yes, I know, Restrictions — as if you yourself are a person you don’t trust to use your own phone. Kinda awkward, right?

2. Remove Mail

Email’s another big problem for me. There’s some good psychology behind this: our brains have a glitch that makes random rewards incredibly appealing. It’s a slot machine where the big payout is… a note from my boss, I guess.

I can’t give up email, but luckily with my job I really don’t have to have it on my phone. Over the last year, I’ve encouraged people to text or call me if they need a fast response. As an added bonus, most people have a much higher threshold for texting or calling than they do for firing off an email.

You can’t turn the Mail app all the way off on your iPhone. The easiest thing to do is delete your email account in Settings.

3. Remove “infinity” apps

Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, even the New York Times — all of these have a potentially endless supply of new and interesting stuff that I could check at any time. So none of them belong on my phone.

You can delete these apps the old-fashioned way, of course. Jiggle, jiggle, ✕!

4. Consciously decide what to keep

Having a blank desktop on the phone is surprisingly calming. Once I’d cleared off so much stuff, I wanted to keep it clean. I found it really useful to ask myself why each remaining app was on my phone. Was it a tool that made my life better? Or was it dragging me along for the ride?

So what made the cut? Here’s my list:

  1. Phone
  2. Messages
  3. Camera
  4. Apps that make me feel like I live in the future, kept in a folder inventively called “The Future.” Dropbox, Google Maps, Uber, Rdio, Instacart, and so on. (Even the weather app is pretty cool, when I stop and think about it. I mean, in the 1980s, I had a Walkman. That’s my point of reference: a freakin’ Walkman. It’s totally amazing that you can get a weather report in your pocket. And I would never, ever get addicted to it.)
  5. Useful things I rarely use, like a New York subway map or the compass.
  6. Useless things you can’t delete, like Passbook and Game Center.

I want a sensible phone, not a smart phone

This whole exercise has left me feeling like I took the iPhone into my life without ever really thinking about what it was gonna take from me. Internet, all the time, everywhere? Sign me up. Games, news, photos, popularity? Yes, please, more, please! It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of excellent gourmet food. The trouble for me? I will always eat more than I should.

Since my line of work is helping companies build software and hardware, I’m trying to take this philosophy to heart. So I’ll leave you with a little preaching.

60 word sermon

When we invest our time and energy in technology — as creators or consumers — we should invest in products that belong in “The Future” and not those that make our lives disappear faster than they already do.

Personally, my life’s already going by at the speed of light. But this past year, it felt just the tiniest bit slower.

Tell me if you try it

Thanks for reading. If you do the experiment, I’d love to hear about it. Drop me a tweet. I’ll check it on my laptop. @jakek


Design Partner at Google Ventures.

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Threshold theory & Creativity

Secrets of the Creative Brain

But despite the implications of the title Genetic Studies of Genius, the Termites’ high IQs did not predict high levels of creative achievement later in life. Only a few made significant creative contributions to society; none appear to have demonstrated extremely high creativity levels of the sort recognized by major awards, such as the Nobel Prize. (Interestingly, William Shockley, who was a 12-year-old Palo Alto resident in 1922, somehow failed to make the cut for the study, even though he would go on to share a Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor.) Thirty percent of the men and 33 percent of the women did not even graduate from college. A surprising number of subjects pursued humble occupations, such as semiskilled trades or clerical positions. As the study evolved over the years, the term gifted was substituted for genius. Although many people continue to equate intelligence with genius, a crucial conclusion from Terman’s study is that having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative. Subsequent studies by other researchers have reinforced Terman’s conclusions, leading to what’s known as the threshold theory, which holds that above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests. An IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally so, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius.

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