Bits Of Knowledge

A Blog about Machine Learning, Data Privacy and what it takes to make sense of the digital words in the rise of the digital millennium.

About Internet of Things and Privacy

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Sep• 30•14


Innovation is creating new materials, new sensors each time smaller, cheaper, more flexible, more powerful and at the same time less power-consuming. It allows to put them everywhere: we are surrounded with devices crowded with those sensors as our phones with cameras, gyroscopes and gps. And all those measurements captured by the sensors are being used by applications, many of which are connected to the cloud and to Internet.

Internet of Things (as this technology is called) is becoming ubiquitous, leaving us each time more exposed on our daily life.  How many of us have our whereabouts known by the GPS company, the Phone provider and even the car manufacturer?  Also our personal biometrical information is being left all over our running paths not to mention the new gym-centers.

On the other hand, Nicole Dewandre reminds us on this recorded presentation of two basic human needs: our human need of privacy and the fact that we construct ourselves through the public eye.

We need privacy to express our internal thoughts without public judgement, we need to be in a safe place to test and confront to others our lines of reasoning.  On our hyper-connected world, the spaces where we can profit from this privacy are vanishing.

As for our second need, the image the others have of us is very important. The information we leave behind influences this public image and it has a great effect not only on what others think of us, but also on our own perception of ourselves, on our self-esteem and finally it ends reflecting on our happiness.

Living on this hyper-connected world in which we are immersed is a real challenge!

Our 2 ways of thinking: Fast and Slow

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Aug• 31•14
From Jim Holt review  in The New York Times. Illustration by David Plunkert.

From Jim Holt review in The New York Times. Illustration by David Plunkert.

I just came back from holidays, and I want to share with you my last reading: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by David Kahneman.  He describes our mind as having 2 different ways of functioning: a fast one, based on our ‘intuition’ and a slower one, where we have to do the effort of reasoning.

  • The fast one is the intuitive way, used on everyday tasks, and is also called by the psychologists our ‘unconscious mind’.  It is based on the inputs of our senses (hearing, sight, smell..). They trigger a search in our memory and bring through associations a representation of our situation and an immediate response to it.
  • The slower functioning way is when we focus our attention on the inputs at hand, and we follow a line of reasoning based on our knowledge to come to a conclusion.  This method requires more energy, we must direct our attention to each piece of information, and as we evaluate things sequentially (one thing after the other) it is slower.

As our body is lazy by nature, this second ‘slow’ way of reasoning is only used if needed, that is if the situation requires our ‘special attention’.  It is a great thing that our faster and energy-saving functioning way is our ‘default’…except for the fact that David Kahneman points out very interesting experiences that show the pitfalls of our intuition!

One great example he presents is the ambiguity resolution that goes behind our knowledge: when a sentence or image could be interpreted in different ways, our ‘fast mind’ resolves the ambiguity with the most recent context, which is good in many situations.  The problem is that it doesn’t even let us know that there was another interpretation at all!  We are not aware that our mind took only one of the possible alternatives. And moreover, it takes the easiest available memory to give sense to the world as we sense it.  So recent events that are more vivid on our memory have a greater impact on our interpretation of the world.  This is called the ‘availability bias’.

 Not only our memories play us games, but our whole body is linked to our intuitive way of functioning.  He mentions an experiment they performed in the United States where they asked the participants to look at photos and words related with elderly, then they asked them to move to another room, and that was the aim of the experience: they measured the time it took them to walk from their actual location to the other one.  They realized that the participants that have been shown pictures related to elderly were slower than the others, like if our body was related to what we have been thinking.  This is called the ‘priming’ effect.


And what may seem more surprising, this body-mind link works also the other way around: people requested to hold a pencil on their mouth had their mood adapted to the grimace they have been forced into.  Here is the details of the experiment: some participants were requested to hold the pencil by the middle of it, so having on one side of the mouth the point and on the other the eraser, some others were requested to hold the pencil putting their lips around the eraser end.  Then the 2 groups have been presented with the same cartoon images, and the first group found it on average  more funnier that the second group.  The first group seemed on a happier mood as if they have been smiling.  The second group were less positive after they have been forced on frowning before looking at it.

The conclusion is that we have to be really careful with our  mind’s evaluation of a situation if we have left it to our unconscious or intuitive mind.  It is biased by design!  The more aware we are about those biases, the better we are to counter them.

Games for breakthrough thinking

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Jul• 27•14

Using games for brainstorming is really great.  Instead of doing a standard meeting, the idea is to set a series of rules, and then play that game.  There is a clear beginning, once the rules have been explained and everybody agrees to play by the rules.  Then when the game is being played, the participants are free to explore the ‘game space’ that are all the possible situations that we can reach by applying the predefined rules.  And there is an end when the declared goal is reached.

image from book Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunny Brown and James Macanufo

image from book Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunny Brown and James Macanufo

Some goals are clearly defined like the ones limited by time: for example to come up in 3 minutes with as many ideas or words around a subject as possible.  Others have no time constraints; the end is to reach a desired end situation as in the 4-in-line or chess games.

But typically, in real situations where there is need of brainstorming, the goal is not so clear.  For problems that need creativity, new ideas or innovation usually the goal cannot be fully defined; it’s more like a general purpose.  We may have a general direction on where we want to go and we count on measures to see if we have succeeded.

But why playing a game for brainstorming?  Because we just love playing games :-) but more important because when we are on a game we feel free to explore all the alternatives and go beyond conventions.  And that facilitates innovative ideas to come up.  We just free ourselves from standard agreed conventions to cover all the possible alternatives that the rules of the game offer us.

As an example, I can mention the story of Timothy Ferriss, author of ‘The 4-hour workweek’ that won the gold medal at the Chinese Kickboxing National Championships.  He did not use to practice kickboxing, but he read the rules of that sport, and he explore the ‘game space’ of the Championship.  He then took advantage of 2 loopholes to participate with only 4-weeks of preparation!  One of the rules said that if the combatant fell off the platform 3 times in the row, his opponent won by default.   Another one allowed him to play in classes of lower weight than what he should have played in.  Those 2 rules combined made him the World Champion on Kickboxing.  He was not really playing; he was just pushing his opponents and won with that technique.  For sure you can argue it is not a fair way of winning, but it’s an interesting way of thinking in order to reach the goal of the game.

Another example comes from my son who had an assignment last year at the university: to program a robot so that it will follow a circuit, then it has to throw a piece of wood as far as it could and finishes by going back to its parking place.  There were points for each action: to reach the start line, to follow the path without going out of the route, to throw the piece of wood in a predetermined place and also to go back to the garage.  The path was unknown, only revealed at the time of the exam.  When the fatidic day came, the path that was presented to them was quite complicated and most of the robots failed.  But in one of the teams they had a ‘plan B’ that was a different set of programming instructions: they only programmed the robot  to do the tasks that gave points with the minimum risk: go to the starting point, go to the predetermined place and throw the piece of wood and then return to the garage. The robot didn’t even try to do the circuit, but with that strategy they were one of the 5 finalists!  Again, this is the same situation as with Timothy Ferriss: it doesn’t feel fair even if it played by the rules,  but worked for the assignement.

Now if your survival is at stake, let’s imagine a planetary catastrophe, wouldn’t it be good to have a ‘B’ strategy on your sleeve? 

Design Thinking at PWN Global

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Jun• 30•14

Last month was the annual off-site meeting from PWN Global (Professional Women International where I’m a Board member is the Brussels chapter of this federation of networks).  Almost all the citi-networks were represented plus the Board of the federation and we had even the presence of corporate sponsors.
The main objective was to shape the lines for the future:  where do we want to go and what do we expect from the federation?

And in order to do that, Marijo Bos, our president, prepared us a session of ‘design thinking’, a game-based approach to brainstorming:

At the first step of the process we had to follow the rules to come up with as many ideas of our future as we could, to expand the universe of possibilities.  On the second step we exchange all our thoughts, and then the third step was to reduce that universe in order to keep only the shared vision, the most mentioned action proposals.

After 2 days of intensive work, we ended up with agreed objectives and a subset of well-defined actionable points.
PWN Global- Nice 20140619
We did a good job while enjoying the time together!

Citizen Science hits again with EyeWire

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - May• 21•14

Hear of this crowdsourcing success story at EyeWire:



Crowd-sourced science isn’t just fun and games anymore; it has produced a scientific discovery new and important enough to be published in the journal Nature.

The social gaming venture EyeWire lured citizen scientists to follow retinal neurons across multiple two-dimensional photos with the chance to level up and outperform competitors. And with their help, EyeWire has solved a longstanding mystery about how mammals perceive motion.

The use of gamification in conjunction with collaboration techniques, and the multiplication factor of reaching a motivated worldwide crowd,  is giving great results! 

Computers are not very good at identifying objects in an image (to see where one object ends and another one begins), something humans do at a glance.  On this particular game, EyeWire, there are more than 120.000 players from 100 countries coloring the presented neuron cells.  Players are doing the job of identifying cell by cell the path from the eye to the brain.

But that’s not the only thing the crowd is contributing with, because the players’ results is also used to train ‘learning algorithms’ in identifying objects in an image.  Learning algorithms are a very special kind of programs that can adapt through feedback. So when we give to the algorithm a positive (or negative) example of output, the program changes some internal parameters in order to adapt and give the desired outcome. With this game, the images with the colored cells that humans are doing in the game are being used as positive examples.  Next generation of image recognition programs will be more powerful also thanks to crowdsourcing.

Information on available European open online courses (MOOC)

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - May• 07•14

Open Education Europa, the EU portal on open education resources just published the scoreboard of the European MOOCs.  Check here for the full information on all the listed MOOCs, Learn and enjoy!

European MOOC scoreboard1

Testing tool for Big Ideas

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Apr• 30•14

For all of you who have an idea but are not sure it will work, or for the ones that are juggling with many ideas and never concretize any :-) here is a tool that could help you decide if to go further or not: the Pimento Map



[..] the Pimento Map methodology is a fast, easy and accurate way to evaluate the chances of success of your business model. It gives the opportunity to entrepreneurs, business angels or venture capital firms to build an objective opinion on a new business idea.  It also points out in detail where the model can be improved.

The tool was presented on the Tech Startup Day last week, it’s easy of use, the system asks you to answer some questions around a factor, and then shows that slice of pie in Green, Yellow, Orange or Red.  Guess what color you should wish to have?  Yes, green or yellow are ok, if you get the other ones, you found the weak factor of your idea.

If you are afraid of letting Pimento know about it (yes, the question has been clearly asked), as they said: you are the one filling the description :-)

So take action, test you Big Idea … and fine tune it if it needs it. I wish you a big success!

MOOCs: the new learning style

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Mar• 26•14

Last week I presented MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at the Professional Women International association in Brussels, Belgium.

I had the pleasure of talking to the participants afterwards.  They told me they were so pleased to learn they had such an easy way of taking good quality courses that they were going to check that same night for their preferred subjects :-)

Happy to have contributed to spread the word about the availability of the MOOCs, putting all their encapsulated knowledge encapsulated at any user’s fingertips!

On the last slide, I just dropped words  with the main implications of this trend;  I encourage you to put a comment if any of the subjects I mention resonates with you:

A philosophical view on hyperconnectivity

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Feb• 02•14

Last week I had the pleasure to hear Nicole Dewandre talk about Hyperconnectivity at the Rotary club of Waterloo.  Nicole works as advisor for societal issues for the Director General of the DG CONNECT at the European Commission.


Her presentation was about the impact hyperconnectivity has on our human condition from a philosophical point of view. I was very interested in hearing her view on the impacts of the new information technologies.

She first described the characteristics of our human psychology, I picked some nuggets like ‘On passe sa vie derrière son visage’, meaning that we have only our inside view point, we don’t know  how we look like from outside, to the others. This is why we need the other’s reflection to complete our identity.  Before the hyper-connectivity era, we could choose the limit of exposure of our inner-world, we could say or not where we had been, what we did, what we thought depending on the context :  is the person we are talking to a friend or a working colleague?

With all the electronic traces and information we leave behind, the online and offline distinction is blurring, that’s why they came up with the term ‘OnLife’ :-).  And with the existing Big Data techniques we are revealing so much more about ourselves, that the needs of opacity each person has  is being challenged.

The Onlife manifesto proposes to create a new digital literacy:  as language is not only being able to put words on a sentence,  but consists also of  a code of conduct: what can be said, in which context? (for example ‘secretos en reunión es mala educación’ which means it’s bad manners to whisper in public) , we have to create awareness in all digital users of a code of conduct, a ‘Netiquette’ of the digital world.  What can be posted and to which public? Posting pictures of a trash party on Facebook:  is it OK to publish it open to all public without the consent of each person in the picture?  Is it OK for your phone company supplier to publish or sell your whereabouts?

The manifesto points also out the problem of attention:  everybody wants to capture our attention, but as we can only focus on one thing at a time, our attention is a limited asset as time.

We believe that societies must protect, cherish and nurture humans’ attentional capabilities. This does not mean giving up searching for improvements: that shall always be useful. Rather, we assert that attentional capabilities are a finite, precious and rare asset. In the digital economy, attention is approached as a commodity to be exchanged on the market place, or to be channelled in work processes. But this instrumental approach to attention neglects the social and political dimensions of it, i.e., the fact that the ability and the right to focus our own attention is a critical and necessary condition for autonomy, responsibility, reflexivity, plurality, engaged presence, and a sense of meaning.

This ‘Onlife Manifesto’ seems an interesting initiative.  I’ll look more into it.

As New Services Track Habits, the E-Books Are Reading You

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Dec• 28•13


In this article of The New York Times David Sreitfeld is discussing a new service ScribD is beginning to offer. Scribd is a subscription-based library, where you can read books through their interface.  They are now collecting information from their readers, like how long they stay on a page, the pace on specific chapters, do they reach the end of the book?.. The idea is to offer this insight to the authors, for them to improve their future deliveries.

Last week, Smashwords made a deal to put 225,000 books on Scribd, a digital library here that unveiled a reading subscription service in October. Many of Smashwords’ books are already on Oyster, a New York-based subscription start-up that also began in the fall.

The move to exploit reading data is one aspect of how consumer analytics is making its way into every corner of the culture. Amazon and Barnes & Noble already collect vast amounts of information from their e-readers but keep it proprietary. Now the start-ups — which also include Entitle, a North Carolina-based company — are hoping to profit by telling all.

“We’re going to be pretty open about sharing this data so people can use it to publish better books,” said Trip Adler, Scribd’s chief executive.

Quinn Loftis, a writer of young adult paranormal romances who lives in western Arkansas, interacts extensively with her fans on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, Flickr and her own website. These efforts at community, most of which did not exist a decade ago, have already given the 33-year-old a six-figure annual income. But having actual data about how her books are being read would take her market research to the ultimate level.

Here are some results they could extract from their data:

Scribd is just beginning to analyze the data from its subscribers. Some general insights: The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see who done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.

They are “reading us” while we read :-) but let’s not be paranoid, we will be getting more attractive books… Let’s hope it doesn’t limit our choices in the future.