Newsletter | Wednesday, October 19th 2016

This week we talk mind-controlled robotic arms, Netflix A/B tests, Soylent sickness, social tech and stupid side projects.

 Fun fact: Google was originally called BackRub


Nathan Copeland, a 28-year-old man left paralysed after a car accident, has been able to actually feel again. How?? A mind-controlled robotic arm. Scientists used imaging techniques to identify the exact places in the brain that correspond to feelings in his fingers and palms, and then surgically implanted microelectrodes (about half the size of a shirt button) in those areas that would connect to his robotic arm. This is huge news for the treatment of paralysis, as it means people will not just be able to move their limbs but be able to control and feel them with their minds. Feel free to geek out over it…Obama already has.


Ever wonder how Netflix serves a great streaming experience? You can thank the team of engineers and data scientists who constantly A/B test their innovations to adaptive streaming and content delivery network algorithms …but what about more obvious changes, like the complete redesign of their UI layout? Yes, the product teams run rigorous A/B tests for designs, too.

Here’s the lowdown on how A/B testing is done at Netflix: as soon as the test is live, the team tracks specific metrics of importance, i.e. elements like streaming hours and retention. Once the participants have provided enough statistically meaningful conclusions, the team moves onto the efficacy of each test and defines a winner out of the different variations. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but if you’re interested in the technical details read about it here.

One of the their A/B tests involves selecting the best art for videos (see image below of Netflix series Sense8). They found that images that have expressive facial emotion do particularly well and that artwork featuring recognizable or polarizing characters from the title tend to do well. Of course, winning images might be different in various parts of the world – Netflix accounts for this. Despite great stories transcending borders, their research highlights how presenting each story in different regions impacts how quickly members from around the world actually discover that story through artwork.


Long live Soylent…maybe?

Soylent— the nutrient-dense “wet cardboard” or “aftertaste of Cheerios cereal” tasting food— has been the go-to meal replacement product….until about a week ago, when news broke out that soylent bars may be causing serious gastrointestinal issues. According to a discussion on Soylent’s website and several Reddit threads, customers have compained of the bars causing nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The problem is that it is not clear what exactly is responsible for the outbreak; some say it’s food poisoning,

others say it’s an intolerance to soy. Part of the challenge is distinguishing between real symptoms and the occasional hypochondriac who asks: is Soylent causing my left third toenail to turn yellow? Key takeaways: first, you should be skeptical of food replacement products (eat real food!). Second, companies must respond smartly when the quality/safety of their products are in question – and they can take a page from Soylent’s blog.


Hungry?…time for some food for thought: does Social Tech allow for a new type of mindfulness? Participating in online social activity can be incredibly powerful, productive and identity-forming. Nate Cooper touches upon how social tech can draw us into an empathic state at any moment. With the Internet, we have the ability to literally traverse the world from an almost omniscient perspective. We can then meditate on the grief, suffering, hope and happiness of others by projecting our empathy onto the screen. But just like doing yoga 24/7 would be detrimental, we need to find a balance. Sometimes we need to unplug ourselves ( .


In order for side projects to truly succeed, they have to be stupid.  Yes, stupid – that’s the advice of Tobias van Schneider, design lead at Spotify. His argument? People need to give themselves permission to think simple, to change their minds, and to not take themselves too seriously. With side projects you get to be a beginner because there are no expectations. It’s this no-stress, eager-to-learn attitude that allows us to work on things we truly want to work on. Sound easy? Keeping side projects stupid is actually really, really hard. Tobias gives us some actionable advice on how to manage side projects effectively.

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Have an idea on stupid side projects, thinking about building a product, or simply want to chat about innovative tech?—we’d love to hear your thoughts, get in touch!

As always, check out our blog for more. That’s it for this week. ✌️