It’s Cyber Monday! Time to break out those wallets and throw caution to the wind. It’s the day where we all learn about a product, decide we absolutely must have it and then buy it because it’s “such a great deal!”
We’re not going to compile a list, because everyone else already has. We’re just going to point you to some good ideas. So, here you go!
Couldn’t find anything to buy? Good job – you did better than us.
Our cofounders, President Michael Frentress and VP Kody Frazier, participated in a Techstars Startup Weekend event. Kody recaps their experience here:
This past weekend Michael and I had a great time participating in a Techstars Startup Weekend. These events take you through a crash-course in business development over a single jam-packed weekend, with opportunities to learn from mentors and to work with a team of people you would have otherwise likely never even met. For us, it was an opportunity to meet new people, step away from EIN for just a moment, and stretch our minds a little bit in new and exciting ways. We took a brand-new idea from concept to pitching it in front of business leaders in just 54 hours!
From the Techstars website:
At Techstars Startup Weekend, you’ll be immersed in the ideal environment for startup magic to happen. Surrounded by smart, passionate people and with the best tools and approaches at your disposal, you’ll take giant leaps toward creating a business, becoming a founder, and connecting with the right people and resources.
In just 54 hours, you will experience the highs, lows, fun, and pressure that make up life at a startup. As you learn how to create a real company, you’ll meet the very best mentors, investors, cofounders, and sponsors who are ready to help you get started. Your community is here to help you — find an event today!
The event was hosted by the Ozarks Small Business Incubator (OzSBI) located in beautiful downtown West Plains, right in the heart of the Ozarks, and the home to our Operations and Billing departments. OzSBI provides essential startup and business development services to the region.
EIN is proud to be a Business Level member of OzSBI, and to help support business development and entrepreneurship in West Plains and the surrounding region. If you’re an entrepreneur, or even if you’re not sure about starting a business yet, I highly recommend looking into any incubators, accelerators, or small business development organizations in your local community. Being a business owner is difficult, especially when you’re first starting out, so take advantage of every opportunity you can find.
For the competition, we brainstormed an idea about providing better access for citizens to interact with their local government in a way that lets all parties be aware of exactly with whom they’re interacting. Citizens know that everyone else remotely viewing a City Council meeting, or any other government function for that matter, are also local citizens in their community and not a random “troll” looking to disrupt citizen engagement. The concept could be built as a neutral platform that let municipalities sign up for the service for a small recurring monthly fee, which then allowed local citizens to register to be notified of any upcoming meetings and to submit documentation to the municipality to confirm their identity. The citizen could then remotely view the meeting, interact live with the city representatives, and instantly be more engaged. We called the idea Citizen Live.
I pitched the idea to the crowd of entrepreneurs and business mentors that had gathered for the event. In total 19 ideas were pitched this evening, but only four would go on to be developed over the weekend. Everyone participating in the weekend voted for their favorite ideas and the top ones were selected, and Citizen Live made the cut! After being selected as an idea that would be pitched to business leaders at the end of the weekend we set out to recruit our team from the other participants. We were lucky enough to snag Jim, a young developer still in college, and Nancy, a local artisan that we knew could provide the non-technical insight that we were desperately missing.
Starting Friday night we began developing the basic framework for how the concept could work in the real world. We tried to just dump out all of the ideas we could muster and see which ones really “stuck” before calling it a night. The tight focus of our ideas was really promising at this point.
By Saturday we had a better understanding of what the platform could really be, and that’s when we started making mistakes. To be clear we didn’t know we were making the mistakes at the moment, but a big part of this experience is realizing in retrospect where you could have focused better to have a more concise final product. First, we went too far down the road of trying to build a Minimum-Viable-Product (MVP) from a technical perspective. We should have been focusing more on the feasibility of the business and working on customer validation. Second, we started branching our ideas off into all the various implementations of the concept and found ourselves really excited about the prospect of for-profit and non-profit business applications. This was a problem because we had already hitched our wagon, so to speak, to the municipal government concept. We never really came all the way back to our original focus, and it showed at the end.
When it came time to make the pitch on Sunday evening I once again stepped up to the front of the room and explained to the judges why Citizen Live was such a great idea. Or at least, that was the plan. In reality, I went over our allotted time and wasn’t able to completely explain the concept, in particular, the financial projections that really made it a viable product. If we had completely removed the secondary and tertiary markets from the pitch we probably would have had better timing and a more polished presentation overall. But, I think we showed that we were an excellent team that came together in just a few short days to develop something really interesting.
In the end, we came in 3rd, and I’m really proud of our performance. I was glad to have the experience and the opportunity to be a part of such a cool program right in my hometown. I’d like to thank OzSBI for hosting the event, Nathan Gregg for being our facilitator, and the judges and mentors for giving up their weekend.
Team Citizen Live was amazing because of the people involved, and I especially want to thank our teammates for making the experience so great! We ate a ton of sugary snacks, drank too much coffee, watched Jim show us some close-up card magic, and built something together. That’s awesome!
P.S. If you’re interested in getting a weekly message from me join our VP Notes email list by entering your email address below. I give you a behind-the-scenes peek at the previous weeks inner workings at EIN and share some cool articles, videos, and freebies! Click Here to view my previous VP Notes messages.
I love Halloween.
From October 1st through Halloween night I will watch The Nightmare Before Christmas many, many times. I will listen to Halloween music at my desk. I will demand that the skeleton and ghost decorations are put up immediately. I will imagine new ways to make our annual Halloween get-together with friends and family more entertaining and exciting.
So I was super excited when we decided to change the website theme to reflect the spirit of the holiday. Then, on top of that, we’re doing this amazing giveaway of Amazon Firesticks. It’s just making the best month of the year even better! If you haven’t entered to win one of the four Amazon Firesticks we’re giving away this month you should right now! Click Here to Enter
Firesticks are amazing, and if you’re not familiar with them yet you’re going to be pretty impressed. We’re all about the cord cutting here at EIN, and most of simply stream our favorite shows and movies at home without the need for a cable or satellite system. Firesticks make it so much easier to get rid of terrible cable TV and satellite contracts. You just plug them into the side of your HDTV into an open HDMI port, plug them into power (usually you can just do that by using the available USB port on the back or side of your TV), and boom you’ve got a smart TV! You can access your Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and even live channels with a subscription to a service like DirecTV Now!
So when you’re waiting for the next group of Trick-or-Treater’s to come to your door and threaten to egg your house if you don’t give them the full-size candy bars you can enjoy all your favorite content right on your TV. Then, when they egg your house anyway you can ignore it while watching a new release on HBO, or an amazing new series on Netflix. I hope you’ve entered, and I really hope you’re a winner because I love these devices and I think you will too!
Even if you don’t win a new Amazon Firestick I don’t want to get tricked – so here’s a nice promo code for your Trick-or-Treat bag. Use promo code Treat2017 and get $10 off any new order in October! Happy Halloween everyone!
Easy Internet Now
A new service tier and the addition of thousands of new locations to the EIN service area
Oklahoma City, September 17, 2017: Easy Internet Now is excited to announce the launch of three new plans and the rebranding of our service tiers. Customers will now be able to select from six plans, each designed to perfectly meet the unique needs of our residential and business customers. EIN understands that Internet connectivity needs vary from home to home and business to business, and that’s why we’ve expanded our plan options and increased our maximum speed by over 4X the previous top tier plan. Not only have we launched three new Unlimited Fiber plans, we’ve also expanded to thousands of new homes across all 21 states in our service area.
EIN customers can now select from up-to six plans, each designed to meet their specific needs. The serviceability tool only shows the plans that match a realistically expected speed at each location. Unlike other ISP’s we don’t offer a blank selection of plans and expect our customers to pay for unrealistic speeds, we try to show them right up front what they can receive at their location and let the customer make the selection that matches their needs. No one knows the Internet usage needs of a household or business better than the customer themselves.
Customers will be able to select from our original three plans, now renamed our Unlimited Tier, or if available they will be able to select from our new three plans in the Unlimited Fiber tier. The Unlimited Fiber tier includes speeds from 24Mbps to 75Mbps, greatly expanding our speed availability and giving customers the range they deserve to make a smart choice. As always, all EIN plans are Unlimited with no data caps or unnecessary throttling of speed. EIN is also a no contract, no credit check, lifetime price lock guarantee company.
New Service Locations
Everyone who has checked their address for service with EIN, and found at that time we could not service their location, is encouraged to check again now. Thousands of new locations have been added to our system in all 21 serviced states. Our Address Serviceability Tool is located online at https://easyinternetnow.com/check-for-service/.
States that EIN services:
Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin
For more information about Easy Internet Now, please visit: https://easyinternetnow.com
For more information about EIN Service Plans, please visit: https://easyinternetnow.com/plans/
To contact EIN, please visit: https://easyinternetnow.com/contact/
Easy Internet Now
Pay how you want with EIN
Sometimes the best ways are the old ways. Now you can order new High-Speed Internet Service from Easy Internet Now and pay by Check or Money Order! It’s one more part of how we’re working every day to make getting Internet service as easy and convenient as possible. To make a payment by Check or Money Order on a new order just select the option from the list at the bottom of your order:
If you choose to pay by Check or Money Order you will need to mail in your payment before we can schedule your Installation. EIN is a prepaid service provider, and like our other payment methods, we need to have your first payment in place before installing your new High-Speed Internet Service. Shortly after you place your order you will get an email explaining that you need to mail in your payment to our processing center before Installation can proceed.
Easy Internet Now Payment Processing Center
PO Box 1563
West Plains, MO 65775
This makes three easy to use payment methods for getting service with EIN! If you’re planning to use a check we highly suggest using our eCheck system to get your Installation scheduled and in-progress as quickly as possible.
Making Monthly Payments by Check
Not only can you make your initial payment by Check or Money Order, you can also pay your monthly subscription the same way! Just make sure your payment is mailed to our processing center with plenty of time to arrive before your due date. Payments mailed to the processing center may not be applied the day they are received – but they will always be backdated to the date they arrived, so no worries about getting an errant late fee.
If you have any questions about our payment methods, or anything else related to EIN, just give a shout by texting 405.445.3685 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always glad to hear from you!
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Pokemon Go puts virtual characters in the real world – which is just part of its appeal.
Dalton White/YouTube, CC BY
In the last week, Pokemon Go, an augmented reality game for mobile phones, has taken off. Daily traffic for the game exceeded Twitter and Facebook use. What is driving this intense interest and involvement? One way to understand is to take a closer look at the game’s design.
First, for those who haven’t played or watched, a brief overview of how the game works. To play Pokemon Go, you download an app onto your phone, which allows you to search for and “see” virtual creatures called Pokemon that are scattered throughout the real world. You need to be physically close to a Pokemon’s location to see it on your mobile screen. Pokemon Go uses augmented reality technology – the game overlays the creature image on top of video from your phone’s camera, so it looks as if the creature is floating in the real world. When you find a Pokemon, you try to catch it by swiping an on-screen ball at it. The simplest aim of the game is to “catch ’em all.”
To do this, you’ll have to wander outside your own real-world neighborhood, because different types of creatures are scattered throughout your town and all around the world. You can easily share snapshots of creatures you’ve collected and where you found them on social media sites like Facebook, if you want. As you get better at the game, you discover that you can train the creatures in “gyms,” which are virtual spaces accessible by visiting real world public locations (for example, the White House is a gym). When you’ve reached level 5 in the game, you get a chance to join one of three teams: Team Mystic, Team Valor or Team Instinct. These teams compete to maintain control over the gyms where Pokemon go and train. You and your friends can choose the same team, and work together if you like. You’ll also have teammates from around your community (and the world) who join in.
Several aspects of the game’s design help to make the experience so compelling. A look at gaming research shows several of the game’s elements can explain why playing Pokemon Go has been such a massive worldwide hit for players of all ages.
Playing Pokemon Go is simple and accessible. It’s easy to grasp what to do – just “catch ’em all” by walking around. In contrast to many “hard core” games such as League of Legends that can require hours or even years of skills training and background, Pokemon Go’s design draws upon the principles of folk games such as scavenger hunts. Folk games have simple rules and typically make use of everyday equipment, so that the game can spread readily from person to person. They often involve physical interaction between players – think of duck-duck-goose or red rover.
These sorts of games are designed to maximize fun for a wide age range, and are typically extremely quick to grasp. Pokemon Go’s designers made it very simple for everyone to learn how to play and have fun quickly.
Pokemon Go also leverages the power of physical movement to create fun. Simply moving about in the world raises one’s arousal level and energy, and can improve mood. Exercise is frequently recommended as part of a regimen to reduce depression.
Pokemon Go’s design gives players powerful motivation to get out of the house and move around. Not only are the creatures distributed over a wide geographic area, but also, players can collect Pokemon eggs that can be hatched only after a certain amount of movement. Players have reported radically increasing the amount of exercise that they get as they start playing the game.
Connecting with others
The most powerful wellspring of fun in the game’s design is how it cultivates social engagement. There are several astute design choices that make for increased collaborative fun and interaction. For one thing, everyone who shows up to collect a creature at a location can catch a copy of that creature if they want. So players have motivation to communicate with one another and share locations of creatures, engaging in deeply collaborative rather than competitive play. Not all gamers like fierce competition, so the collaborative aspects of the game broaden its appeal.
For those who do love competition, the three-team structure allows for friendly rivalry and challenge. The ease of joining a team keeps it from being exclusionary, preserving the game’s inclusive style. Because there are only three teams worldwide, there’s a lot of friendly banter online about which team is the best, adding to the fun.
Also, collecting Pokemon is a distinctive-looking thing to do with a phone. Players can tell when a stranger is collecting Pokemon at a place they happen to be, and can join in and collect for themselves. This has sparked many conversations among strangers. Finally, making it easy to take snapshots of collected creatures and share them on social media has meant that players recruit other players into the game at astonishing rates. Building collaboration and connection into the game in these ways creates a broadly accessible flavor of play, so that many people are willing to engage and share.
Pokemon Go’s rapid success demonstrates the potential for well-designed augmented reality games to connect people to one another and their physical environment. That forms a stark contrast to the typical stereotype of video games as socially isolating and encouraging inactivity. It bodes well for the future of augmented reality gaming.
Two basketball teams go head-to-head in an esports competition, with spectators cheering them on.
Dan Steinberg/Invision for NBA 2K/AP Images
In late 2016, a sports championship event was held in Chicago, drawing 43 million viewers during the series finals. That was 12 million more people than watched the 2016 NBA Finals.
It wasn’t soccer, or football, or even the World Series of Poker. Instead, it was the “League of Legends” World Finals, an esports competition.
Video games have been popular for more than 30 years, but competitive gaming, or esports, has recently emerged as a spectator activity that can draw thousands of attendees and viewers. Major sports networks such as ESPN, Fox Sports, MLB Advanced Media and the Big Ten Network have started broadcasting esports competitions, often partnering with major gaming companies like EA Sports, Riot and Blizzard. What is driving this phenomenon, and where is it taking us next?
At first glance, the idea seems crazy, particularly to older consumers. Why would anyone want to watch other people playing video games? As a researcher focused on user experiences with social media, I have been watching the esports phenomenon develop over the last few years. My current work, with Matthew Zimmerman from Mississippi State University, looks at why users watch esports. Our preliminary findings suggest that esports spectators often play the games themselves, using the viewing process as a way to learn more about the games in question and improve their own skills as players.
In addition, many spectators take genuine pleasure in watching others play, finding the competitive culture immersive and experiencing watching esports very similarly to how they watch traditional sports.
Esports viewing has increased markedly over the past few years: The global market grew to US$696 million in 2016, and may exceed $1 billion by 2019. Media payments for rights to cover the events total nearly $100 million of that; consumers are paying $64 million for event tickets and merchandise. Most of the rest comes from advertising and sponsorship spending. The combined markets of China and North America account for more than half of global esports revenues.
A key attraction of esports is that regular people can play the very same games as the esports stars, often in real-time multiplayer tournaments. Millions of people play “Overwatch,” “League of Legends” and “Dota 2” in their own homes, and many of them participate in collaborative games and battles on communal video game servers or networks such as Steam. Familiar with the games, eager to learn new techniques and excited to celebrate expertise, these at-home players are very interested in watching top-level players in action.
Sean Morrison, a digital media associate for ESPN who specializes in esports coverage, told me he isn’t surprised by the surge in esports attention.
“I think the growth of esports is a generational shift more so than people suddenly becoming interested in video games,” says Morrison. “This generation of teens grew up on YouTube, watching streams, communing on internet forums – you name it. And esports is big business, too; it’s natural that people would wonder what the big deal is. All the hype kind of fuels itself, and that, combined with how many people have now grown up with this as a form of normal entertainment, has made it so big.”
Michael Sherman, college esports lead for Riot Games, the makers of “League of Legends” and other games, agrees.
“Watching video games is a very social behavior. Now you as a spectator have an opportunity to see the best people play. Aspirationally, you watch and say ‘I want to do that,‘” Sherman said to me. “It’s different from traditional sports like the NFL. I don’t watch football and go outside and throw the ball around. In esports, a lot of people watch and then they go play.”
An easy daily fix
While large sports media properties such as ESPN and the Big Ten Network have staked out territory in the esports world, many spectators get their daily fix from Twitch.Tv, a personal streaming service that specializes in video game streams. Twitch allows users to broadcast their own gameplay, while also hosting esports competitions and other video game shows. The service, which was purchased by Amazon for almost $1 billion in 2014, has helped esports to grow, by allowing gamers and viewers to directly connect with each other.
Twitch capitalizes on the very familiar practice of communal game watching. Over time, many video gamers have gotten used to watching others playing games while waiting for their turn with the controller. Twitch globalizes that experience, and – just as friends together in front of a TV can comment on each other’s play – lets viewers and the player interact directly online.
This is a boost beyond what many games allow. It’s quite common for games to have online components where players can take on opponents from anywhere in the world. But only on Twitch and similar esports platforms can nonplayers watch the action. Twitch’s elite gamers generated $60 million in subscriptions and advertising revenue in 2015 alone, per a CNBC report.
League and game growth
Lately, college teams have been getting in on the action. “The biggest development has been universities adopting ‘League of Legends’ as a sport,” says Riot’s Sherman. “In 2014, Robert Morris University was the first school to launch a varsity program. Now we’re up to about 25 schools.”
University-based teams allow several important elements of sport organization to coalesce in the esports marketplace. These teams feature young, enthusiastic gamers who are good enough to be competitive internationally, and institutions of higher learning who are keen to utilize the marketing potential of a rapidly developing sport to spread their brand. Esports have existed for many years outside of the official university environment, but official sanctioning by universities could help to boost the visibility of esports, as well as the games played in competitions.
“We announced in August that we had 100 million active monthly players globally for ‘League of Legends,’” Sherman says. “That was up from 64 million two years prior.”
While “League of Legends” continues to expand on the collegiate level, “Overwatch” has an eye on further changing the esports marketplace.
The Overwatch League, likely to launch in 2018, looks to have existing sports franchises in major cities across the globe own esports teams as well. The game designer, Blizzard, wants to create fan interest based on geographical and cultural relevance. The Overwatch League would also include regular broadcasts of matches on both TV and internet-based channels, as well as player contracts.
ESPN’s Morrison expects the Overwatch League model to help spur on esports spectator base growth. “‘Overwatch’ is going to blow up in the next couple of years,” he said. “Between the Overwatch League, which is going to be more like traditional sports than any league before it, and the number of competitive series popping up within it, ‘Overwatch’ will likely become the number one esports title before long. Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games like ‘League of Legends’ have long been the center of the esports universe, but games like ‘Overwatch’ that combine MOBA elements in hero choice with faster-paced gameplay are becoming a mainstay.”
The sports media landscape continues to change, and esports seem to be a natural evolution of that process. Competitive video gaming was hard to conceive of 20 years ago, and even harder to conceive of as a spectator sport. But broadband internet, online video, social media and shared gaming experiences have taken esports to the brink of worldwide acceptance as a legitimate form of consumer entertainment. The next five years promise to be fascinating to watch – or to play.
Gaming makes getting older better, and more fun.
City and County of San Francisco Bandwidth Opportunities Program
Sitting quietly in the corner, we watch a daily family ritual: in the living room awash with soft afternoon light, a six-year-old boy is sitting on the floor, controller in hand, eyes firmly on the television screen. His fingers expertly guide the colorful character in Skylanders, from time to time glancing over his shoulder and grinning at the figure on the sofa, his 68-year-old grandmother.
Perched on the edge of the seat, she follows his game dutifully, exclaiming and clapping when he finishes a task or meets a challenge, responding with enthusiasm and praise to his frequent inquiries: “Did you see me, Gram?” Every day after school, the two of them do this. Sometimes he plays with friends, but still asks his grandmother to watch. Sometimes he sits calmly on the sofa by her, and they play Minecraft together. Well, he plays; she watches.
Such a scenario has become common in households across America, with older family members partaking in the gaming activities of the younger generation – and not just watching them play. From 1999 to 2015, the share of American gamers older than 50 increased from 9 to 27 percent. They enjoy the challenge, the fun and especially the social side of playing video games. A major draw is that gaming can be a way to spend time together with others, including their children and grandchildren.
Our research shows that members of all generations – young and old – view family togetherness as a benefit, and many play video games with that as a specific purpose. They enjoy the games, they enjoy playing, but what they really enjoy is the interaction, which helps to create connections among family members. Better yet, these connections can improve mental and physical well-being and improve relationships, which are all keys to maintaining a high quality of life as people age.
Changing families need to remain connected
America’s population is aging, and the world’s population of people over 65 is growing quickly: according to the National Institute on Aging, by 2030 one billion people will be 65 or older. Rising life expectancy combined with declining birth rates makes older adults an increasingly large fraction of the world’s population, changing the relationships and the structure of family.
Three and even four generations are now likely to share significant parts of their lives, whether living together or separately. As the numbers of grandparents and great-grandparents increase, it becomes more important to form and maintain strong bonds among older and younger adults in families. As newly independent adolescents become involved in the unforgiving whirlpool of romantic, academic and social activities, family ties take a back seat. The frequency and intensity of family connections weaken, especially with grandparents.
One way to maintain the important intergenerational relationships within families is through shared activities. Spending time in ways that appeal to both sides of the age spectrum also creates closeness to further strengthen connections. Video games are one important way to achieve this.
Playing for togetherness
Through many conversations with families like the one at the start of this story, we found that older adults who regularly play video games with their relatives find the experience enjoyable, fun and, most importantly, bonding. Mainly partaking in casual, social games, they relish the informal daily contact and the common ground gaming creates between them and their children and grandchildren.
“Time together, and something that is just ours, that just the two of us do,” one 63-year-old told us, explaining why she plays video games with her granddaughter. “It is like a secret language when we talk about it in front of the rest of the family, something that ties us. I feel like I have been more a part of my granddaughter’s life now that we get to do something closer to her generation.”
Younger adults, in turn, play video games with older family members mainly as a means of maintaining or deepening their relationships. In most cases, they carefully select the games based on their family member’s perceived interests and abilities. When playing with friends, they typically focus on games with higher levels of control complexity or story involvement, such as Call of Duty or World of Warcraft. But when playing with older adults they select “exergames” such as Dance Dance Revolution or app games such as Words with Friends, meeting the perceived necessity for simple controls, as well as outcomes beyond mere enjoyment, such as physical or mental exercise.
They use the gaming to spend time together, to connect and to talk about both simple and complex topics in a setting they find comfortable and comforting. “Playing helps me talk to my dad more, because I don’t have the luxury of going home every week,” one 19-year-old man told us. “So, playing online games together helps me in continuation of the bond I have with my dad.”
Regardless of age, the ability to stay connected through gaming is the most prominent motive for playing. For the young, playing simple, casual games that do not necessarily excite them is still a good way to feel the comfort of family. For the old, working through frustrations of learning to use new technologies is a small price to pay to actively participate in the lives of their children and grandchildren. The results are happiness and enjoyment stemming from the bonding, the conversations, the feelings of being closer to loved ones and even maintaining relationships across distances.
Is electrical pulse to the brain your favorite memory enhancer?
U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr., CC BY-NC
The first time I heard that shooting electrical currents across your brain can boost learning, I thought it was a joke.
But evidence is mounting. According to a handful of studies, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), the poster child of brain stimulation, is a bona fide cognitive booster: By directly tinkering with the brain’s electrical field, some research has found that tDCS enhances creativity, bolsters spatial and math learning and even language aquisition – sometimes weeks after the initial zap.
For those eager to give their own brains a boost, this is good news. Various communities have sprung up to share tips and tricks on how to test the technique on themselves, often using self-rigged stimulators powered by 9-volt batteries.
Scientists and brain enthusiasts aren’t the only people interested. The military has also been eager to support projects involving brain stimulation with the hope that the technology could one day be used to help soldiers suffering from combat-induced memory loss.
But here’s the catch: The end results are inconsistent at best. While some people swear by the positive effects anecdotally, others report nothing but a nasty scalp burn from the electrodes.
In a meta-analysis covering over 20 studies, a team from Australia found no significant effects of tDCS on memory. Similar disparities pop up for other brain stimulation techniques. It’s not that brain stimulation isn’t doing anything – it just doesn’t seem to be doing something consistently across a diverse population. So what gives?
It looks like timing is everything.
When the zap comes is crucial
We all have good days when your brain feels sharp and bad days when the “brain fog” never lifts. This led scientists to wonder: Because electrical stimulation directly regulates the activity of the brain’s neural networks, what if it gives them a boost when they’re faltering, but conversely disrupts their activity when already performing at peak?
In a new study published in “Current Biology,” researchers tested the idea using the most direct type of brain stimulation – electrodes implanted into the brain. Compared to tDCS, which delivers currents through electrodes on the scalp, implanted ones allow much higher precision in controlling which brain region to target and when.
The team collaborated with a precious resource: epilepsy patients who already have electrodes implanted into their hippocampi and surrounding areas. These brain regions are crucial for memories about sequences, spaces and life events. The electrodes serve a double purpose: They both record brain activity and deliver electrical pulses.
The researchers monitored the overall brain activity of 102 epilepsy patients as they memorized 25 lists of a dozen unrelated words and tried to recall them later on.
For each word, the researchers used the corresponding brain activity pattern to train a type of software called a classifier. In this way, for each patient the classifier eventually learned what types of brain activity preceded successfully remembering a word, and what predicted failed recall. Using this method, the scientist objectively classified a “foggy” brain state as the pattern of brain activity that preceded an inability to remember the word, while the pattern of activity common before successfully recalling is characteristic of being on the ball.
Next, in the quarter of patients for whom the classifier performed above chance, the researchers zapped their brains as they memorized and recalled a new list of words. As a control, they also measured memory performance without any stimulation, and the patients were asked whether they could tell when the electrodes were on (they couldn’t).
Here’s what they found: when the zap came before a low, foggy brain state, the patients scored roughly 12 to 13 percent higher than usual on the recall task. But if they were already in a high-performance state, quite the opposite occurred. Then the electrical pulse impaired performance by 15 to 20 percent and disrupted the brain’s encoding activity – that is, actually making memories.
Moving beyond random stimulation
This study is notably different from those before. Rather than indiscriminately zapping the brain, the researchers showed that the brain state at the time of memory encoding determines whether brain stimulation helps or hinders. It’s an invaluable insight for future studies that try to tease apart the effects of brain stimulation on memory.
The next big challenge is to incorporate these findings into brain stimulation trials, preferably using noninvasive technologies. The finding that brain activity can predict recall is promising and builds upon previous research linking brain states to successful learning. These studies may be leveraged to help design “smart” brain stimulators.
For example: Picture a closed-loop system, where a cap embedded with electrodes measures brain activity using EEG or other methods. Then the data go to a control box to determine the brain state. When the controller detects a low functioning state, it signals the tDCS or other stimulator to give a well-timed zap, thus boosting learning without explicit input from the user.
Of course, many questions remain before such a stimulator becomes reality. What are the optimal number and strength of electrical pulses that best bolster learning? Where should we place the electrodes for best effect? And what about unintended consequences? A previous study found that boosting learning may actually impair a person’s ability to automate that skill – quickly and effortlessly perform it – later on. What other hidden costs of brain stimulation are we missing?
I’m not sure if I’ll ever be comfortable with the idea of zapping my brain. But this new study and the many others sure to follow give me more confidence: If I do take the leap into electrical memory enhancement, it’ll be based on data, not on anecdotes.
Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories.
With the selection of Ajit Pai to chair the Federal Communications Commission, President Trump has elevated a major foe of net neutrality from the minority on the commission to its head. Pai, already a commissioner and therefore needing no Senate approval to become its chair, would need to be reconfirmed by the end of 2017 to continue to serve.
Public interest versus private profit
The basic conflict is a result of the history of the internet, and the telecommunications industry more generally, writes internet law scholar Allen Hammond at Santa Clara University:
Like the telephone, broadcast and cable predecessors from which they evolved, the wire and mobile broadband networks that carry internet traffic travel over public property. The spectrum and land over which these broadband networks travel are known as rights of way. Congress allowed each network technology to be privately owned. However, the explicit arrangement has been that private owner access to the publicly owned spectrum and rights of way necessary to exploit the technology is exchanged for public access and speech rights.
The government is trying to balance competing interests in how the benefits of those network services. Should people have unfiltered access to any and all data services, or should some internet providers be allowed to charge a premium to let companies reach audiences more widely and more quickly?
Pushing back against corporate control
There is fairly limited competition, it turns out. Across America, most people have very little – if any – choice in who their internet provider is. Communication studies professor Amanda Lotz at the University of Michigan explains the concerns raised by a monopoly marketplace and the potential effects of turning back the current policy of net neutrality:
The rules were created out of concern internet service providers would reserve high-speed internet lanes for content providers who could pay for it, while relegating to slower speeds those that didn’t – or couldn’t, such as libraries, local governments and universities. Net neutrality is also important for innovation, because it protects small and start-up companies’ access to the massive online marketplace of internet users.
In this view, the internet is a public utility that should be preserved and protected for all to access freely.
Getting around the rules
Even with net neutrality rules in place, companies were pushing the boundaries of what is legal. In recent years, many mobile internet providers have been simultaneously imposing and creating exemptions from limits on how much data their customers can use in a given month. Called “zero rating policies,” these exemptions omit from the monthly cap certain types of data, or certain companies’ data. For example, T-Mobile customers can listen endlessly to Spotify internet radio regardless of how much high-speed data they use for other purposes. Information systems scholars Liangfei Qiu, Soohyun Cho and Subhajyoti Bandyopadhyay at the University of Florida examined the effects of those policies on the marketplace:
At first glance, zero rating plans would seem to be good for consumers because they allow users to consume traffic for free. But our research suggests the variety of content may be reduced, which in the long run harms consumers.
Their findings suggest that keeping the internet open would be best for the public.
Regulation isn’t always a good solution
However, regulating with that sort of goal could be risky because of the fast-changing nature of the internet, writes technology policy scholar Scott Wallsten at Georgetown:
Today’s business models may not be viable in the future. Net neutrality rules run counter to that reality by freezing in place a particular industry structure, making it difficult for firms to respond to underlying changes in technology and consumer demand over time.
Pai may be getting additional allies
Nevertheless, as the Trump administration takes shape, Pai will likely find himself with strong support in the FCC. Digital communications scholar Luis Hestres at the University of Texas-San Antonio noted that Trump himself appears to be an outspoken opponent of net neutrality. As Hestres wrote,
His appointments look like bad news for supporters of an open internet. President-elect Trump has named Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison to oversee the transition at the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees internet communications policy. Both are staff members at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and former lobbyists for major telecommunications companies. Both are also vocal opponents of net neutrality. Also on his FCC transition team are Roslyn Layton, another staff member at AEI and vocal net neutrality opponent, and North Carolina telecom entrepreneur David Morken.
The decisions they make will shape the internet for years to come.
A vestige of the 20th century
Whether net neutrality rises or falls, however, the debate will continue. The rules and frameworks the government uses to try to regulate the internet are long out of date, and were written to address a very different time, when landline telephone service was not yet ubiquitous. Boston University communication and law professor T. Barton Carter explained what the real solution is:
The laws governing the internet were written in the early 20th century, decades before the companies that dominate the internet like Google and YouTube even existed. The only solution is a complete rewrite of the 80-year-old Communications Act – unfortunately a fool’s errand in today’s Washington.
Can net neutrality even happen?
And maintaining net neutrality itself could be a major challenge, if not a fool’s errand, thanks to important technical details that could make the ideal impossible, writes University of Michigan computer scientist Harsha Madhyastha:
If one user is streaming video and another is backing up data to the cloud, should both of them have their data slowed down? Or would users’ collective experience be best if those watching videos were given priority? That would mean slightly slowing down the data backup, freeing up bandwidth to minimize video delays and keep the picture quality high.
Then again, just because an ideal can’t be achieved doesn’t mean it’s not worth aiming for.