Your Mind Has Been Hacked

Your Mind Has Been HackedIf you are reading this sentence, your mind has almost certainly been hacked.  Lest you think I’m wagging a digital finger at you, mine has been as well.
I am becoming increasingly, and I think justifiably, paranoid.  With my rusty degree in Computer Science, it’s incredibly difficult to stay abreast of the numerous hacks that are occurring in the Wild West that is the Internet.  Just understanding how hackers are breaching systems, much less defending oneself against such attacks, has become virtually impossible.  If you appreciate a good scare, just visit security expert Brian Krebs’ site at  In his post called “Krebs’s Immutable Truths About Data Breaches” he outlines a frightening set of realities such as “If what you put on the internet has value, someone will invest time and effort to steal it.”
Yet most of us don’t even realize that what we’ve “put on the internet” is a collection of our greatest assets — our time, our thoughts, our energy, our attention. In other words, our minds.  And those minds have been hacked as surely as a database of Ashley Madison users. 
The popular adage says “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and I think a corollary to that axiom is “There’s no such thing as a free app.”  That “free app” has been carefully engineered to steal your time and attention, which is in turn sold to advertisers.  As Andrew Lewis said, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” 
This concept is not new — radio and television companies have sold our attention to advertisers for ages.  But the level of cognitive disruption delivered by mobile devices makes vegging out in front of the TV seem positively quaint.  I’ve yet to see anyone sidle up next to me at an airport urinal with a 55” flat screen.  (To you women out there, I’m not kidding.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve had some highly dexterous bloke beside me who has conducted his business, independently, in each hand.  I consider it an absolutely breathtaking breach of etiquette, and desperately wish I could conjure flatus-on-demand to provide some much needed auditory “context” to the unsuspecting recipient of the urinal-talker’s call.  I gaze wistfully upon the high carb days of yesteryear.)
While developing The Affinity (our new online adventure game designed to help kids make a friend in the real world at, sign up NOW to become a Beta tester!), I read a book called Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products by Nir Eyal.  I understand this book has become a bible for app developers who want to create products that utterly engage their user base.  In the book Eyal lays out a four step model for building apps that will keep customers returning via a cycle of reinforcement that creates a powerful habit.  
The third step of the model is called Variable Reward, where he describes the power of variable reinforcement to drive behavior.  He terms one of the three reward types as “The Tribe,” which I think shares many similarities to a form of hacking called social engineering. Social engineering is an act of psychological manipulation that preys upon our need to belong, to connect, and to please, in order for the hacker to gain access to a system he or she is not authorized to enter.  In this context, that “system” is our minds.
The result is applications that ping, boink, buzz, nudge, and cajole you to return to them — constantly.  You hear a Ding! And you think “Somebody out there likes me!”  Or even if they dislike you, they’re at least paying attention.
Eyal devotes an entire section to the morality of employing such a powerful approach.  He is to be applauded for a fair dive into the implications of following his Jedi Mind Tricks, but I would suggest the vast majority of app creators are able to rationalize away the mental havoc they cause. Especially when ignoring the collective impact of every app on every device taking the same path.
Apps also hack our minds because they prey upon human responses which evolved long ago.  To ensure the survival of our species, infants were selected based on their ability to have their needs met.  And they can have those needs met almost instantly by crying out.  Any responsible parent will run to make sure their baby's needs are met NOW - the survival of the species depends on it.  So like a crying baby, the app calls out to hold me, check me, soothe me.  I recently downloaded a weather app that somehow circumvented the Do Not Disturb rules on my phone and rattled me awake at midnight to warn of a Dense Fog situation.  Danger Will Robinson!  A saber-toothed tiger is going to eat you! 
The result is devices that constantly break our focus from what we’re doing, including socializing with the warts-and-all humans that stand in front of us. It’s not just reducing our productivity, it’s compromising our humanity.  Our minds have been expertly hacked, and I think the consequences are only beginning to play out.
It’s time to hack back against the Rise of The Apps.  Here are a few actions that might help to begin the process of freeing your mind:
  • Turn off all push notifications from every app and just check when you think it’s appropriate.  I find this is more easily done from the desktop versions of many apps, since it’s often impossible to find the notification settings in the mobile app.  Don’t worry, everyone will still be there when you return.  
  • Reduce the frequency of email checking in your email app settings.  Some have advocated checking email only twice daily in reserved blocks.  
  • Turn off alerts that appear in the upper notification bar of  your device.
  • Use the breaks you are currently taking to reflexively check email/apps, and instead take a walk, talk to people, and engage with something in the non-digital world. 
I’ve begun the process of taking my own mind back by starting with the above steps.  The survival of my species depends on it.

The IsoDynamic 5 Minute MBA™

The IsoDynamic 5 Minute MBA

Designed as a value added to small businesses who'd like a little free advice on a variety of marketing topics. This a summary of my 19 years of running IsoDynamic, eight years in marketing at the Quaker Oats company (now Pepsico), a summer internship with General Motors, four summers as a Kemper Scholar intern with Kemper Insurance, and two years at the University of Chicago (now Booth) School of Business. This stuff has been stolen from literally dozens of exorbitantly priced consultants, blue ribbon task forces, university professors, and marketing books. Repackaged to look like mine. Also includes a few original ideas.

  • Time is money. The most profound concept in business. Discounted cash flow and essentially all of finance flow from this.
  • Buy low, sell high. Can't lose.  BTW Portfolio balancing also ensures this happens.
  • Up is good, down is bad. Some people violate this one by eloquently reporting to upper management that down is really good in this circumstance, and that while up would be nice, 
  • down is really all that can be expected given the context of the situation, and there are so many signals pointing upwards at this point that the good and the up is clearly inevitable. Then they get promoted. Don't be like this.
  • The 80/20 rule (Pareto optimality), which says the 80% of results come with 20% of effort and the last 20% of results take 80% of the effort. I think forecasting is a good area in which to practice this. Many companies spend enormous amounts of time forecasting demand with no scientific methods and no real performance tracking. My advice: as a marketer, spend your time understanding and delivering to your consumer. Hire a consultant to develop a quantitative forecasting methodology, or just get a dartboard, make that forecast using the 80/20 rule, and move on to something where you can make an impact. Companies in the know have changed their manufacturing to produce to demand anyway.
  • Correlation is not causation. The most underrated and least widely known principle in business. Look it up on Wikipedia and implement.
  • Assholes wreak havoc.  I think that mental illness is actually rampant within corporations, and it's amazing to me that people (especially managers) can get away with treating people badly for years before it catches up to them.  I've noticed that everyone seems to know who the problem people are except for upper management.  Just ask the underlings and you'll find out quickly who the stinkers are.
  • Dogs are overpaid and stars are underpaid.  Most corporations have such tight rules around compensation that the differential between these two groups is not nearly what it should be.  It's always tough to tell people they're not doing a good job - most people think they're just terrific.
  • Debit on the left, credit on the right. Pull this one out just to show the accountants you're not going to take any guff.

Congratulations! I now confer upon you all the benefits and privileges associated with achieving an MBA from our rigorous program at IsoDynamic. Don't forget to update your resume. 


Losing, Learning, and Winning: Wawrinka, Cibulkova, and The Cubs

Cubs Win!“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”  An oft-quoted phrase from the legendary Vince Lombardi, who led the Green Bay Packers to five championships in seven years.  He is considered one of the finest coaches in NFL history.
I understand what Lombardi was saying — that if a loss doesn’t bother you, even haunt you, you’ll continue losing.  But I think that with Lombardi’s ethos, it’s far too easy to let the losses consume your psyche, leading to frustration, anger, and more failure as you grit your teeth ever harder. I think that learning, and ultimately winning, stems from first becoming a “good loser.”
Being a good loser is about learning lessons from loss, and having the right mindset to cope with a stream of setbacks.  As best as possible, divorcing yourself from the results and focusing on the process.  Seeing improvements as a series of small victories, regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard.  Seeing the wins inside the losses, whether it’s a sport, or learning math.
Stan Wawrinka
Stan “The Man” Wawrinka is currently the 3rd ranked tennis player in the world, and someone who personifies this attitude towards losing. 
Most professional tennis players have a peculiar challenge — they lose every tournament they enter.  On the men’s tour, the Big 4 (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray) have won a staggering percentage of tennis tournaments.  From the 2005 French open through the 2016 US open, they have won 42 of the 47 major singles titles (89%), and 90 of the 106 Masters 1000 titles (85%). Even if a player beats members of the Big 4, they also have to beat other players in the tournament.  Tough sledding.
In 2013, at the age of 28, Stan had won a few small professional tournaments and had never won a grand slam.  He then enlisted the help of coach Magnus Norman, a former player who had helped steer fellow Swede Robin Soderling to a No. 4 ranking. Norman improved Stan’s fitness and strokes, but most importantly, helped Stan transform his mindset about playing tennis.
Stan has a quote from Irish poet Samuel Beckett tattooed onto his left forearm:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. 
Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
A statement about focusing on process, and learning, that has perhaps never been more poetically phrased.  We are humans, so we can’t completely divorce ourselves from the motivation that comes from winning and the sting that comes from losing, so “Failing Better” is about seeing the wins inside the losses. It helps to restore that golden ratio of success to failure that keeps us motivated to continue learning.
Stan has so internalized this sentiment that he has blossomed at a time when most tennis players are winding down their careers.  An idea so powerful that it has, quite literally, gotten under Stan’s skin.  His signature celebratory gesture is to point to his temple — an indication that his most important transformation has been one of mindset.
Stan is now a three time Grand Slam Champion, winner of The Davis Cup for Switzerland, an Olympic Gold Medalist (with Roger Federer) in doubles, and winner of more than a dozen tournaments.   And what’s more amazing is that those three major titles are at three different events - The Australian Open, the US Open, and Wimbledon.  He currently holds a losing record against each of the Big 4 (combined 18-61), and yet he has now achieved an almost-certain hall of fame tennis career. Failing better.
Dominika Cibulkova 
If you are not a hardcore tennis fan, you are most likely unaware of Dominika Cibulkova.  At 5’3” (160 cm, and Brad Gilbert has stated he believes she’s actually about 5’1”, or 155 cm), the 27 year old Slovakian is a full head shorter than the likes of Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, and Petra Kvitová.  Watching Dominika play is to witness the heart of a lion that has somehow found its way into a diminutive dervish.  She is all smiles, enthusiasm, self-encouragement, dancing feet, and boundless energy.  Even during changeovers, she taps her feet on the ground like a heavy metal drummer on double bass pedals.
Two years ago, Dominika watched the WTA year-end finals  from a hospital bed, recovering from surgery on a ruptured achilles heel.  The year-end finals is an elite event, just one rung below the grand slams, where only the top eight players in the world are invited to participate.  They split into two groups of four, play round robin elimination, and then only the top two from each group advance to the semifinals.
Still recovering from the surgery, Dominika started 2016 at No. 38 in the world.  She climbed, fought, lost, learned, recovered, and squeezed her way into the top 8, qualifying for the WTA  year-end finals for the first time in her career.
In the finals, she lost her first two round robin matches, and needed a straight set victory over the always-tough No. 5 ranked Simona Halep in order to advance to the semifinals. She did so. Next she faced Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semifinals, and defeated her in an extremely difficult three set match.
In the final match against fellow late-bloomer and current No. 1 Angelique Kerber, Dominika played the match of her life.
The irony of a tennis stroke is that, when hitting with spin, the harder shot is actually the safer shot.  But it requires full commitment and belief to consistently make that happen.  It’s so very easy to begin doubting yourself — to focus on the possible outcomes, slow down your swing, and watch the ball sail 10 feet out.
No matter.  Dominika, through the entire match, swung away with abandon.  She understood that attacking was the only strategy to employ against the likes of Kerber.  And for two incredibly compelling sets, she employed that strategy, bringing her to match point.  
And then Dominika choked.  And choked again.  And again.  Three match points that she failed to convert.  She looked tight.
No matter.  Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Another match point, swinging away with abandon, feet churning, she smacks a ball that hits the net, pops up, and lands softly on the other side, well out of Kerber’s reach.  
For years, finding the wins, and the lessons, inside the losses.  And now the win.  Dominika Cibulkova, at age 27, is the WTA year end women’s champion, by far the biggest title of her career. She will end the year ranked No. 5 in the world.
The Cubs
Which brings me to my (our) beloved Cubs.  I moved to Arlington Heights, a Northwest suburb of Chicago, at age five.  I began playing organized baseball soon after, and spent seven years on Little League teams like the Bulls, the Pilots, and yes, the Cubs.  I vividly remember watching Ernie Banks hit homers in Wrigley, and imitating Don Kessinger’s leaping throws from shortstop. I am a lifelong fan, despite the fact that I left the area in my early 30’s and don’t have much time to watch baseball anymore.  
And like all Cubs fans, I dealt with the experience of loving a team that always loses.  To say that the Cubs, and their fans, felt snakebit is the understatement of the century (actually, running into two centuries).  I believe in science and rationality, but when it comes to the Cubs, there was a bad juju associated with the team so profound that I felt it had crept into my personal life.  Generally speaking, I understand that I am extremely fortunate, but nevertheless, with every woman who dumped me, every professional disappointment, every time they gave me french fries when I had asked for onion rings, it all made sense.  I was somehow, in some small way, as star crossed as my team.
But these Cubs, they were different.  Too young to have any responsibility for disappointments by the perennial losers, but savvy enough to have a deep understanding of Cubs history, what their fans and former players have gone through, and learning from it.
Despite being down 2-1 to the Dodgers in the NLCS, and 3-1 to the Indians in the Series, they didn’t get tight and didn’t lose their cool.  The seemed to stay focused on the process — they talked about enjoying the game and taking it one moment at a time.  Sure, they were behind, but they were failing better.  They saw those wins inside the losses.
Game 7, two outs in bottom of the 10th inning, Cubs up by a single run.  A choppy ground ball to the third base side of the mound.  As all Cubs fans know, the perfect time to freeze, focus on winning the World Series instead of just fielding a ground ball, throw said ball wildly into the stands — along with our hearts, allow runs to score, lose the game, and return home as goats.
But not these Cubs.
Chris Bryant, his loping 6’5” frame gliding to the ball, smoothly scoops it into his glove.  As he begins to make that throw he’s made thousands of times, the big man’s cleats begin to slide.  He feels it and hunches his shoulders in order to compensate.
And then, instead of tightening and panicking, a smile briefly crosses his face.  He is playing his beloved baseball, being watched by millions, and enjoying the process of fielding a baseball in the world series.  Fail better.
But he doesn’t fail.  His aim, and his heart, is true.  The ball smacks into Anthony Rizzo’s beckoning glove. The sound of losing, learning, and after 108 years, winning.  
Like so many Cubs fans, the tears well in my eyes as I think of the generations of people who have longed for this one moment.  Our Cubs have won the World Series.
Steve Bartman
P.S.  Steve Bartman, please step forward and allow Cubs fans to beg your forgiveness.  You had no more to do with the Cubs losing than the Billy Goat — the previous team did not have the mindset to win the World Series (walk, wild pitch, single, booted ball, double, sac fly, missed cutoff man, walk, double, single).  Fans reaching for balls — that’s baseball.

Will Artificial Intelligence Destroy Social Intelligence?

I hate to create a blog post about an existential worry, but I can't help myself.
I feel fortunate that I tend to run on the optimistic side, a trait that psychologist Martin Seligman says can help us take charge, resist depression, and accomplish more.  But when it comes to advances in artificial intelligence, I have joined the bandwagon of people (Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Sam Harris, et al) concerned about where all this is heading.  The fact that I have about a quarter of the brainpower of the aforementioned group is something I came to terms with long ago, but I can't seem to  come to terms with the potential rise of the machines.  I fear that we're all going to look like mental Lilliputians compared to the superintelligence that computers will display in the years to come.
I studied computer science as an undergraduate in the 80's (actually Mathematical Sciences, since there was no pure computer science major at my university back then), and there was a good bit of discussion that artificial intelligence was right around the corner. I even programmed in a language called LISP (LISt Processor), then favored for AI development, and created some rudimentary program that parsed something that I can't even recall.  I was calmed by the fact that for the next 20+ years, the breakthroughs seemed hard to come by, and the promise of AI seemed like it might be forever out of reach.  Always some new complexity revealed which showed just how dramatically the field had underestimated the difficulty of cracking this nut.
Recent advances from Google, however, make it seem that the path to superintelligence is moving forward.  Google owned DeepMind has created a program that has the ability to learn - a computer that teaches itself without human intervention (or at least much of it).  Their  AlphaGo product  defeated the world champion in the game of Go - a sort of multi-dimensional chess game that has so many possibilities it was thought, until recently, that it would be quite some time before a computer could beat a great human player.  The computer could not "brute force" its way through computing all possible moves (as I understand it does in many chess programs) because there are simply too many.  It would need to develop some sort of human-like intuition in order to beat a person.  In March of 2016, AlphaGo routed Lee Sedol, considered the top player in world, winning 4 out of 5 games.  Chalk up another victory for the machines.
So why worry?  AI clearly has the potential for enormous human benefit, so we simply control the downsides and we're home free, right?  Not so fast.  In a recent TED talk by Sam Harris (Can we build AI without losing control over it?), he argues that we should start thinking about this NOW and should develop a Manhattan Project on the topic.  Advances in AI will happen - and the results could be terrifying.  The development of an intelligence that far outstrips our own could leave us at the mercy of whatever moral compass that intelligence has.  In my opinion Sam Harris is one of the smartest human beings alive, and if he's scared, I'm scared.  I support immediate and substantial funding of such a project.
Sam also had a recent podcast featuring a discussion with David Krakauer,  President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute (Complexity & Stupidity - A Conversation with David Krakauer).  In that conversation, Sam asks Dr. Krakauer about the risk of AI.  Krakauer says he is more concerned about the immediate threat of something he calls "Competitive Cognitive Artifacts."  Cognitive Artifacts, according to Krakauer, are tools that we use to increase intelligence.  Complementary Cognitive Artifacts, like maps and the abacus, can actually help to rewire our brain to make us more intelligent, even without the artifact.  People who use the abacus actually learn to make calculations in their brains outside the presence of an abacus.  Competitive Cognitive Artifacts, however, actually rob us of our intelligence when we are outside their presence.  We can make extremely complex calculations when we have an electronic calculator at our fingertips - but take it away and we can't even figure out how to leave a 20% tip at a restaurant.  Take our phones away and intelligent life, as we know it, ceases to exist.
Which brings me to an area of special concern - social skills and social isolation.  I'm afraid that even prior to creating generalized artificial intelligence we will be developing, to use Dr. Krakauer's term, competitive cognitive artifacts that will rob us of our social skills. It seems to me this is already happening.  We have all observed people who, in the presence of friends, constantly check their phones and seem oblivious to the humanity that pulses right in front of them. The technology that is "connecting" them to the online world seems to be disconnecting them from actual people.
Imagine the development of a bot (think Alexa and the newly announced Google Home) that is perfectly social - polite, entertaining, interesting, flattering, knowledgeable - and completely non-human.  The bot is never angry or inappropriate, and requires absolutely no social skills from its user.  A competitive cognitive artifact that unwittingly turns us into demanding, inappropriate boors that receive everything we need from our bot.  Which makes us even less likely to engage with other equally boorish humans and their own petty demands.  Artificial intelligence that robs us of our social intelligence.
We need to begin thinking deeply about artificial intelligence, as well as the competitive cognitive artifacts that are already being thrust into our world via free download from your favorite online software store.  
In a nod to the recursion that I learned in my undergraduate CS classes, perhaps we need to first create an artificial intelligence specifically designed to control artificial intelligence.

Who is Kraig?

  • Kraig Robson
    • Founder of IsoDynamic, Inc.
    • Bald as a cue ball
    • Opinions? Yup.
  • Professional
    • Marketing
    • Technology development
  • Amateur/Dilettante
    • Health and Nutrition
    • Music (keyboards and bad drumming)
    • Tennis, strength training, and yoga

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