Crowdsourcing, Part III

Saturday I wrote a post about how I wasn’t aware of what was going on in my body, and how unsettling that felt. So unsettling, in fact, that I wasn’t able to write the post I had been planning for several days, and had to gaze intensely at my navel for a whole weekend instead.

That was probably a good thing, because it gave me some new insight into this post. Navel gazing isn’t all bad. Turns out there’s some pretty interesting stuff in there.

Last fall I translated an article by Daniel Saraga for Reflex Magazine about the gazillions of bacteria we have living on and in our bodies. The title (in English) was “Me, Myself and I – and a million other germs.” It should actually have been “Me, Myself and I  – and 100 trillion other germs.” Continue reading


Last day of April. MAYDAY! just about captures my mood, too.

While Kate and William were tying the knot, I was sitting in a doctor’s office getting sucker-punched.

Sucker punch: a blow made without warning, allowing no time for preparation or defense on the part of the recipient. It is usually delivered from close range or from behind.

It wasn’t the doctor who delivered the blow, but the blood pressure cuff attached to my left arm. Very close range, indeed.

Oh, that’s high, the nurse says, shaking her head.

That’s strange, I say. I can’t think of anything more to add.

The doctor comes in and asks me about my foot, which had been hurting since mid-October, when I had made a Cardinal Mistake: I changed brands of running shoes. That was why I was here. For my foot! He asks me to stand, relaxed. How can I stand, relaxed, when number one, I am in my underwear and number two, I have just learned that my blood pressure is abnormally high? I do my best. He looks at my feet and smiles.

Why are you smiling? I ask.

Your right foot is bending outwards. C’est remarquable.

I look down. Sure enough, I’m standing on the outside of my right foot, to avoid the pain in the heel. Glad he finds it amusing.

He doesn’t say anything about my blood pressure. I got the x-rays, got fitted for special insoles, signed up for six sessions of physical therapy. My foot is in good hands. My mental state, however, is not.

On the way home I stop by a pharmacy and test the blood pressure a second time. Same numbers.

I don’t understand, I say. I run 4-5 times a week. I’m not overweight.

Maybe you’re stressed? asks the pharmacist.  It can change depending on what you’ve eaten. Did you drink coffee recently?

Who, Me? Stressed? STRESSED? I only have about a million translations piled up that are all due in about five minutes! It’s spring break and I haven’t done yoga in two weeks! My teenage son has gone off to Geneva with a bunch of kids I don’t know! The weeds are taking over my garden at a record rate! Why would I be stressed?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ommmmm.

At home, instead of writing the riveting blog post about ___  that I’d been planning, I spend the next four hours scouring the net for information on hypertension and entering a mild existential crisis. I call my mom for reassurance.

Dad had high blood pressure, and I do too. It’s genetic. But mine was never that high. That’s not good! You’d better see a doctor! I did. He looked at my foot. My anxiety goes up a notch.

I’ve lived my whole life under the assumption that I’m the walking embodiment of health. My mantra: everything in moderation. But I’ve been sucker punched! My body is something other than I thought it was. There’s stuff going on in there that I didn’t know about. Genetic stuff! I’ll get a handle on it, this is not that serious, but my bubble is burst in a big way. I’m not invincible. I’m not 25 anymore. We’re not in Kansas, Toto!

My advice for the royal couple? Live life to the limit. Piffle protocol. Be young and invincible. Be beautiful and strong. It goes by so fast, and you only get this one shot. Oh, and get a checkup once every couple of years. You might avoid getting sucker-punched in the orthopedist’s office.

Crowdsourcing part II

A few days ago, I wrote a post about smartphones and traffic jams.  Pretty soon, thanks to billions of anonymous bits of data flying all over the place, you won’t have to get stuck on the freeway or wait in line at Disneyland ever again. I have since learned that the smartphone stuff was just the tip of the crowdsourcing iceberg. Down below the penguins and their migratory traffic jams, the iceberg is gargantuan. It boggles the mind. We’re like the Titanic, most of us. Blissfully unaware.

Way back in 1999, UC Berkeley started tapping into the unused processing power of home computers all over the world to scan radio waves for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Currently, more than 3 million people are involved in the SETI@home project, doing their little bit to locate aliens. CERN also uses volunteer-based distributed computing to crunch its enormous particle physics data sets, a task that would constipate even the biggest, baddest supercomputer in the world. The rise of the internet has been nirvana-like for people in charge of iterative tasks like these that can be distributed, calculated remotely, and then reassembled into some meaningful form at the other end. All that computer power for free! You don’t have to put an expensive IBM petaflop supercomputer into your project budget, you just have to convince a lot of people (a crowd!) that volunteering the unused processing power on their PCs is a cool thing to do.

I could get my mind around this. The next step should have been obvious to me. But it happened so subtly it didn’t even register. Until my smartphone epiphany, that is.

Computers are great for a lot of things. Give a network of computers a number, an equation, a set of parameters, and they crunch away happily. A symbolic smorgasbord. A banquet of bits. A few more dimensions? Ten thousand more iterations? Not a problem. Computers don’t sleep, have sex, demand respect, drink coffee, or take sick leave. They won’t join a union, have babies or demand yearly pay increases. And when those computers all belong to other people, you don’t even have to pay for it. How great is that?

But unfortunately there are quite a few things computers can’t do very well. They can’t identify faces, emotions, words and images from partial or incomplete samples. They don’t get when something’s funny. They’re unable to recognize and capture beauty in music, art, dance or photography.

The human brain – even the most average, run-of-the-mill, McDonald’s eating, MTV-watching brain – can do things no computer on the planet can do, and all on the power of a 60-watt lightbulb. Such a terrible waste! All those brains out there, operating at a fraction of their potential. All that valuable processing power squandered on mundane tasks like navel gazing and Facebook.

What if you could find a way to connect all those brains, get them to communicate and interact without having to be in physical proximity? Get them to join a global network of some kind? Now that would be a truly formidable source of information processing, a machine that could handle just about any problem. Uh, wait a sec…

And that, my friends, is the essence of crowd-sourcing.

I have seen the future and it is the iceberg.

In case you still don’t get it, here are a few examples.

Wikipedia. The classic. Why hire a bunch of encyclopedia writers when the world is full of experts who will write copy for free? And in case they make mistakes, there are more experts out there to correct their copy for free? Wikipedia is a crowd of know-it-alls. And the information it contains is being constantly refined.

iStockphoto.  Why pay a photographer hundreds of dollars for the rights to use a photo when the world is full of excellent amateur photographers who would be ecstatic to sell their shots online for a dollar?

Citizen science. Why pay for those grad students when the world is full of geeks that will do your gruntwork for free? Identifying protein folding patterns was turned into a game called Foldit, in which volunteers outperform computers consistently. In Galaxy Zoo people look at images of outer space and classify the galaxies they see in them. You build up a “reputation” for how accurate you are. Several novel structures have been discovered this way, such as a “weird green thing” (Dave’s description) called Hanny’s Voorwerp. Herbaria@home taps into the British armchair naturalist crowd to document the vast numbers of plant specimens held in the UK’s herbaria. “Documenting large herbarium collections is an extremely labour-intensive task and most museum collections are woefully under-funded.” You get the picture.

Corporate R&D. Why pay for an expensive R&D department if you can avoid it? Companies like Boeing, DuPont, Procter & Gamble and Eli Lilly post their most intractable scientific problems on a website called InnoCentive, which anyone can join for a small fee. The companies (“seekers”) pay anywhere from $10,000 – $100,000 per solution. More than 30% of the problems have reportedly been cracked, “which is 30 percent more than would have been solved using a traditional, in-house approach,” said InnoCentive’s chief scientific officer Jill Panetta. And just think of all the money they’ve saved not having to shell out for health insurance benefits!

CAPTCHA. I like this one the most. Say it aloud. Isn’t it clever? It stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart.  Whenever you are asked to type squiggly, hard-to-read words in order to verify that you are a human being and not an evil, webtrolling, spamming bot, you are solving a CAPTCHA. It turns out that a lot of the words in these images are from old documents that have been scanned for archiving. Computers parse the images, turning them into digital text, which takes up a lot less room. But often the computers can’t decipher the images. From the reCAPTCHA website:

About 200 million CAPTCHAs are solved by humans around the world every day. In each case, roughly ten seconds of human time are being spent. Individually, that’s not a lot of time, but in aggregate these little puzzles consume more than 150,000 hours of work each day. What if we could make positive use of this human effort? reCAPTCHA does exactly that by channeling the effort spent solving CAPTCHAs online into “reading” books.

When you are asked to solve a two-word CAPTCHA like the one in the picture, the first word is already known and the second word is one that a computer hasn’t been able to read. If you get the first one right, then they figure you’ve got the second one right, too. The image is sent out to lots of people to statistically verify that your answer is correct. I bet you didn’t know you were being crowd-sourced when you typed in those words. I sure didn’t.

Combine spam protection with 150,000 hours of free human optical recognition processing per day. That has got to be the ultimate win-win.

Crowdsourcing takes impossible tasks and turns them into games, contests, and time-fillers for millions of under-occupied neocortexes around the world. I once read an article about an eccentric genius who claimed he wanted to build “the game layer on top of the world.” I thought, “huh?” Now I think he might be onto something. Where is it written that we have to spend our waking hours doing things we think are boring and unsatisfying? Life’s a game. Join the crowd.

My brother Dave (who started all this) said, “You could become wealthy if you could figure out how to use crowdsoursing for tranbslation.”

“Or spelling,” I replied.

Just Say No

Will I never learn?

It’s happened again. Someone I’ve never met who is now working for my ex-boss has an Important Document that needs to be translated, it’s grippingly interesting, really, there’s just this one thing… it’s a tome with an undisclosed number of pages (I am in possession of “chapter 2” which is already 28 pages long) and needs to be done by next Friday. Continue reading


I’ve been asked to translate the introduction to a Nordic walking book. Initially, I was very excited – this could be my big breakthrough into book translating! – but those hopes were dashed when the author explained that the translated text would be sent by her Swiss publisher to an agent in North America, and if it was accepted, it would be farmed out to a translator there.

Well, never mind, a job’s a job, so I get started. I don’t Nordic Walk, so I’m confident I’ll at least learn something new in the process.

One word keeps popping up, jarring my translating flow: bien-être. This is roughly translated into English as “wellbeing.” Nordic Walking, it turns out, is not only a total body workout (it uses 90% of your muscles!), but it also makes you feel good about yourself. But every time I type “wellbeing,” it feels stilted and awkward. I realize it’s not a word that Americans use much. We love talking about exercise, weight loss, cardiovascular health, muscle tone — did I mention weight loss? Lose Weight! Get a Total Body Workout! I guess the implication is that if you’ve got all those bases covered, it’s obvious that you’re going to feel good about yourself. If your body is buff, what more do you need? Wouldn’t saying that you’ll have a sense of wellbeing be redundant?

More to the point, isn’t it totally subjective? How can you compare something as vague as “wellbeing” with numbers of calories per mile or target heart rate or the percentage of your muscles you’re using? What has a higher bien-être index: an hour of Nordic Walking outdoors with your friends or a sweaty session on a Stairmaster? Can’t we measure brain waves or something? Please?

I often pass groups of Nordic Walking ladies, marching along with their poles and chatting away, as I run along the lake. They look happy. But then maybe they’d be happy anyway, even without the poles. The depressed ones are curled up on the couch at home, watching reruns of Friends. But that’s the thing: bien-être is more than just happiness. It’s a deeper concept, a state of being. It has to do with tranquility, a sense of peace, of all being right with your world.

Why would the word describing this concept be used more in Europe (well, at least in the French-speaking countries, I can’t vouch for the others) than across the pond? Sure, Europe has had a lot more serious angst to deal with in the last couple of centuries than the US has. A couple of world wars, the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Maybe that has something to do with it. But then, look at the crazy yoga boom in the US. Even though it often masquerades as a total body workout, yoga also has a non-negligible karma component. All the marketing gimmicks aside (Yoga clothing? Yoga magazines?), I’m convinced there’s some big cultural thing going on here. Maybe we’re entering a kind of national existential crisis. Maybe Americans are finally starting to see that wellbeing isn’t something you can buy or something you can attain by working really hard, but something more elusive that has to be nurtured from within.

I read an article in an actual paper copy of the Sunday New York Times (thank you Matt at BooksBooksBooks) not too long ago about Jack LaLanne and his role  in turning physical fitness into a moral issue in the US. This is key, I’m almost sure of it. In the US, you exercise because it’s a virtuous thing to do. If you don’t, you’re a worthless slothlike sack of flab. Working out thus gives you the heady feeling of — an absence of guilt. That’s a far cry from wellbeing in my book. Nobody cares about wellbeing. We just want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror without an overwhelming surge of self-loathing.

There’s certainly some of this exercise-as-higher-virtue going on in Europe, too (thank you, globalization) but I don’t think it’s as pervasive. The Swiss are certainly into extreme sports, but it’s more a question of how crazy they can be than how buff they are. So when my Nordic Walking enthusiast counts bien-être as one of the benefits of her sport, I’m sure she means it. I just wish I knew how to translate it.