Businessweek: Addiction to a Language-Learning App Can Be Good for You

ReCaptcha inventor Luis von Ahn introduced Duolingo in 2012, hoping to help users master a new language. In minutes a day, the app promised, you could learn English, Spanish, French, or German—no books required, no instructors. And all for free.

The pitch sounded convincing enough. But in the first year after its debut, Duolingo had a hard time persuading hopeful linguists to keep up with the lessons. For every eight users who downloaded and tried Duolingo, seven never returned.

So von Ahn set out with his developers to make the app as addictive as Candy Crush and other popular games—in a good way. The addiction Duolingo cultivates, he says, isn’t harmful in the way the World Health Organization says compulsive video-game playing is; the organization classifies excessive video-gaming alongside opioid or amphetamine abuse. Duolingo really is about self-improvement, von Ahn says—time otherwise spent playing games, on social media, or doing nothing, is applied to developing a skill. What’s so bad about that?

Good or bad, Duolingo’s addiction rate is way up. Next-day retention is 55 percent, up from 13 percent in 2012. “That’s about as good as a middle-of-the-road game,” von Ahn says. And with about 300 million users, Duolingo is the largest language-teaching company in the world, by user base.

Continue reading Businessweek: Addiction to a Language-Learning App Can Be Good for You

New York:‘My Power to Demolish Is Ten Times Greater Than My Power to Promote’: How John McAfee became the spokesman for the crypto bubble.

In May of 2017, a 26-year-old social-media marketer named Peter Galanko made an investment in Verge, a little-known cryptocurrency trading under the symbol XVG. At the time, the great cryptocurrency mania, which saw Bitcoin climb 25-fold by the end of the year – it would fall fall all the way back to a fifth of its December 2017 peak by the end of 2018 – had only just started to heat up. Verge was just one among thousands of nearly indistinguishable digital currencies that traded at a fraction of a penny. But soon after Galanko got in, Verge took off like a runaway balloon, corkscrewing up to half a cent by late August. Galanko, who’d taken to styling himself @XVGWhale on Twitter, had more than quadrupled his money. But now he had an idea for how he could do even better: He needed John McAfee.

The Rocky Mountains were dappled in autumn yellow as Galanko and his girlfriend set out on the two-day cross-country trip from Colorado to rural Tennessee. Their destination was the home of McAfee, the 72-year-old antivirus software multimillionaire who, after escaping from a police investigation into the violent death of his neighbor in Belize in 2012 and boasting in graphic detail about his adventures with the powerful drug bath salts, had transformed himself into a public figure “who many see as a well-respected cryptocurrency soothsayer,” as Slate magazine put it. In mid-July, McAfee had tweeted that Bitcoin, then trading at around $2,300, would be worth $500,000 by 2020, and that if it were not, “I will eat my dick on national television.” By the end of August, the price had more than doubled, and many took this as evidence of McAfee’s foresight. Galanko figured that a good word from McAfee about Verge — whose market would be easier to influence than Bitcoin’s vastly larger one — could send the value of the cryptocurrency dramatically higher.

McAfee had promised an hour of his time, according to a long video Galanko later posted about the encounter on YouTube, but appeared perplexed when the couple showed up at his door. “Who are you?” he asked with a baffled expression. “I didn’t invite anyone over today.” Galanko’s spirits sank, but not for long: a grin spread across McAfee’s weather-beaten face as he let on that he was just playing one of his trademark pranks. With a hearty handshake, he invited them inside.

At first Galanko felt anxious, intimidated by McAfee’s fame and force of personality as well as by the home’s contingent of armed security guards. But as they settled down to talk, Galanko was soon drawn in by McAfee’s skillful storytelling. The evening rolled by in whiskey and conversation. Galanko and his girlfriend wound up staying for a week. The men shot guns together, and Galanko tweeted snapshots of himself riding in the back of McAfee’s car and of McAfee cooking breakfast.

“It was an amazing opportunity … he’s a genius,” Galanko later gushed in the video. (He declined to talk to New York for this article.) The only thing missing was the thing he’d come for. When Galanko asked McAfee to publicly endorse Verge, he demurred, explaining that he was already committed to a rival coin. But a couple of months later he came around, tweeting on December 13 to his 700,000 followers that Verge “cannot lose.” McAfee’s praise was like a match to a rocket fuse. Verge’s price nearly doubled overnight, and by the end of ten days it was up 2,500 percent, making it one of the most successful cryptocurrencies of 2017. A single dollar invested at the beginning of the year was worth more than $10,000 by the end of it.

Read the rest of the story in New York magazine.

Showtime to Premiere Documentary GRINGO: THE DANGEROUS LIFE OF JOHN McAFEE, 9/24

Gringo imageIn non-M370 news (click on “Aviation” in the banner above if you want to avoid stuff like this) I’m very pleased that Showtime is going to air a documentary that I’ve been working on for the last year or so. “Gringo” will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11 and then be broadcast two weeks later. Here’s the press release:

Showtime continues to expand its slate of bold documentaries under the Showtime Documentary Films banner with GRINGO: THE DANGEROUS LIFE OF JOHN McAFEE, a new feature-length film making its world television premiere on Saturday, September 24th at 9 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME. Oscar nominee and two-time Sundance Film Festival winner Nanette Burstein (American Teen, The Kid Stays in the Picture) delivers a deep investigation into the mysterious life of visionary anti-virus entrepreneur John McAfee. The film has been selected to make its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.

GRINGO: THE DANGEROUS LIFE OF JOHN McAFEEpresents a sordid, stranger-than-fiction tale of violence, sex and money as Burstein looks at the unfolding and bizarre life of the millionaire businessman. Years after creating the ubiquitous McAfee anti-virus software, McAfee relocates to Belize in 2008 and adopts a quasi-gangster lifestyle that spirals into increasingly unusual behavior. After the mysterious death of his neighbor, he flees to Guatemala in 2012, before returning to the U.S. to seek the 2016 Libertarian Party presidential nomination that was ultimately won by Gary Johnson. Burstein’s expansive examination, highlighted by interviews with McAfee’s former gang associates and girlfriends, and cryptic email exchanges with McAfee himself, reveals new details of the unsolved murder investigation, while uncovering new allegations against him for crimes that were never prosecuted. The film is an Ish Entertainment Production, and is produced by Chi-Young Park, and executive produced by Michael Hirschorn, Jeff Wise and Wendy Roth.

MH370: Suicide or Spoof? Part 1 — Psychology

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MH370 Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah: the face of a mass murderer?

It’s an exciting time for those of us who are trying to crack the riddle of MH370. By establishing that the plane did not wind up where an autopilot-only flight would have taken it, the Australian-led search effort has dramatically reduced the number of possible scenarios. In effect, only two remain: first, that one of the pilots (most likely Zaharie) took control of the plane and steered into the southern ocean on a suicide mission; and second, that sophisticated hijackers commandeered the plane from the E/E bay and tampered with the Satellite Data Unit so the plane only appeared to be flying south, when in fact it was flying in some other direction.

Given the scarcity of data in the case, how can we discriminate between the two possibilities? In the next few blog posts, I’d like to look at the case from a number of different angles. Today, I’d like to start by looking at the psychological aspects of the case. What do the actions of the perpetrators reveal about their psychology? Does Zaharie fit the profile of a mass murderer?

As has been noted here many times before, during the initial phase of the disappearance, whoever took MH370 seems to have been motivated primarily by the desire to evade and deceive. Electronics were turned off six seconds after the plane passed the last waypoint in Malaysian airspace, during the narrow window between saying goodbye to Malaysian air traffic controllers and saying hello to Vietnamese controllers. Its disappearance from secondary radar led searchers initially to look for the plane in the South China Sea. Only later did the Malaysian military find a radar track showing that the plane had turned 180 degrees and headed west, hugging the Thai/Malaysian airspace boundary before dashing across the Malay Peninsula and disappearing again over the Andaman Sea. The search was therefore moved there. Only later still did Inmarsat reveal that signals its satellite received suggested that the plane had flown south for six hours. These signals were received only because the satellite data unit had been turned back on again—a procedure that most airline pilots don’t know how to do. Thus, the plane didn’t just disappear once, but three times.

Wondering whether this kind of elaborate planning was common among people bent on suicide, I reached out to Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University who has written 54 books, including Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers. Below is an edited condensation of our conversation.

Continue reading MH370: Suicide or Spoof? Part 1 — Psychology

Nautilus: Fear in the Cockpit

Nautilus TransAsia artThe morning of Feb. 4, 2015, was drearily normal in Taipei. With the sky blanketed in low clouds, pushed by a moderate breeze, the day was neither hot nor cold, neither stormy nor fair. For many of the passengers that filed aboard TransAsia Airways Flight 235 at Songshan Airport, the journey ahead promised to be similarly workaday: not a jaunt to some exotic clime, but an hour-long puddle-jump across the Taiwan Strait to the city of Kinmen, where many of the passengers had family and work obligations.

At the front of the plane, 42-year-old captain Liao Chien-tsung and 45-year-old first officer Liu Tzu-chung strapped themselves into their seats and ran through their pre-flight checklists. Shortly after 10.30 a.m. the last of the passengers settled into their seats and the cabin crew closed the doors. As the plane started to move, passenger Lin Ming-wei had a hunch that one of the engines sounded funny, and requested that he, his wife, and their 2-year-old son be seated on the right side of the aircraft.

With practiced efficiency, Liao guided the ATR 72-600 along the network of taxiways to Runway 10. After receiving permission to take off, he rolled forward and swung the plane over the centerline. Engine throttles full forward, the twin turboprop engines roared and shook as each machine’s quadruple blades chopped the air. Liao released the brakes, and the plane leapt forward. The airspeed indicator slid past 116 knots as the plane’s nose, then main wheels, lifted from the runway.

This moment—when a plane transitions from ground vehicle to air vehicle—is the most critical in aviation. It is the part of each flight when a plane has the least altitude, is moving the slowest, and carries the heaviest mass of fuel. Given how much happens in a short span of time, it’s also the most mentally demanding. As Liao felt the seat press into his back, his eyes flitted from the instrument panel to the runway and back. Simultaneously he had to keep the plane centered on the runway, monitor its speed and acceleration, pay attention to the radio, and keep alert for signs of malfunction.

Normally this critical phase is over within a few minutes. But every once in a while something goes wrong. For TransAsia 235, that day was today.

Continue reading Nautilus: Fear in the Cockpit

Success: The Impossibles

The Impossibles ARTAlli Rainey was clinging to a sheer rock overhang 120 feet above the ground when she felt her fingers go numb. She’d spent the last 40 minutes painstakingly working herself up a route called Madness in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Now at the most difficult part of the climb, she realized the muscles in her hands were about to give out. She looked down at the emptiness below her and screamed in terror as her grip slipped and she tumbled from the rock face. Fifty feet down, her belay rope pulled taut and she bobbed in the air, dangling in her safety harness. The crazy thing was that Rainey has an incapacitating fear of heights, yet she’s chosen rock climbing as a full-time career. Then again, doing things she believed to be impossible has been a constant theme of Rainey’s life. And she’s not alone. There are people who’ve figured out how to do things that they believe, that they know, are totally beyond their capabilities—and then do them anyway. I call these people The Impossibles. Are you one, too? If you say no, don’t be so sure—someday you could be.

Read the rest of my story from the January 2014 edition of Success magazine, available online here.

Success: Better Than Smart

Alan Meckler’s drive to succeed has never flagged. In grade school, he taught himself to read by poring over his father’s newspapers. In high school, he earned spots on multiple varsity teams, and at Columbia University he made the dean’s list. He went on to earn a doctorate in history before launching a prosperous career as an entrepreneur. Today, at 68, he’s the chairman and CEO of the Internet content consortium Mediabistro.

Not such an unusual trajectory for a successful executive, perhaps. But there’s a twist to Meckler’s story. Throughout his life, Meckler labored under a secret shame. He struggled to understand things that his peers grasped easily. His grade-school teachers wanted to hold him back. His father bluntly belittled him as “stupid.” Even after he’d been accepted into an Ivy League university, Meckler says, “I was very worried that I would be found out, that I really was stupid.”

His College Board scores were so low, in fact, that after he’d made the dean’s list, school psychologists asked to test him so they could figure out how he’d done it. But they were stumped. “They had me do puzzles,” he says, “and they said that I couldn’t solve problems that most 7- or 8-year-olds could.” College Board officials wanted to study him, too. “They seemed to think,” says Meckler, “that I was some kind of freak.”

The story appears in the September, 21013 issue of Success magazine. Read the rest here.

Signs of the Times

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Why is it so hard to catch even glaring errors? That’s one of the questions addressed in “Your Bleeped Up Brain.” Viewer John Chismar sent me this picture of a shop near his home. He writes, “Your program reminded me of a photo I took a few years ago of a printing shop around the corner from my house. I took the photo a few days after they beefed up the store’s appearance. To be honest, I never noticed anything was wrong until a visiting friend pointed out the error.” Thanks, John!