The importance of context

Surprisingly, the YouTube recommendation algorithm doesn’t draw inputs from far beyond the confines of YouTube itself. You might think that mining our Google search histories for clues about what videos we’d like would pay off. Nope, Goodrow says.

“The challenge is that web search history is very very broad.” Just because you Googled for help with your taxes does’t mean you want to watch YouTube videos about the ins and outs of U.S. tax law.

To Take on HBO and Netflix, YouTube had to Rewire Itself, Fast Company

Not surprising at all actually. Just because everything on the internet can  be connected doesn’t mean it has to be connected. When the internet is your world, zooming in on contexts and measuring behaviors in those contexts becomes paramount.

Popping filter bubbles at SmartNews

It’s now just over a month since I joined SmartNews and I am digging into what’s under the hood and the mad science that drives the deceptively simple interface of the SmartNews product.

smartnews

On the surface, SmartNews is a news aggregator. Our server pulls in urls from a variety of feeds and custom crawls but the magic happens when we try and make sense of what we index to refine the 10 million+ stories down to several hundred most important stories of the day. That’s the technical challenge.

The BHAG is to address the increased polarization of society. The filter bubble that results from getting your news from social networks is caused by the echo chamber effect of a news feed optimized to show you more of what you engage with and less of what you do not. Personalization is excellent for increasing relevance in things like search where you need to narrow results to find what you’re looking for but personalization is dangerously limiting for a news product where a narrowly personalized experience has what Filter Bubble author Eli Pariser called the “negative implications for civic discourse.”

So how do you crawl 10 million URLs daily and figure out which stories are important enough for everyone to know? Enter Machine Learning.

I’m still a newbie to this but am beginning to appreciate the promise of the application of machine learning to provide a solution to the problem above. New to machine learning too? Here’s a compelling example of what you can do illustrated in a recent presentation by Samiur Rahman, and engineer at Mattermark that uses machine learning to match news to their company profiles.

Samiur Rahman on Machine Learning

The word relationship map above was the result of a machine learning algorithm being set loose on a corpus of 100,000 documents overnight. By scanning all the sentences in the documents and looking at the occurrence of words that appeared in those sentences and noting the frequency and proximity of those words, the algo was able to learn that Japan: sushi as USA : pizza, and that Einstein : scientist as Picasso : painter.

Those of you paying close attention will notice that some the relationships are off slightly – France : tapas? Google : Yahoo?  This is the power of the human mind at work. We’re great with pattern matches. Machine learning algorithms are just that, something that needs continual tuning. Koizumi : Japan? Well that shows you the limitations of working with a dated corpus of documents.

But take a step back and think about it. In 24 hours, a well-written algorithm can take a blob of text and parse it for meaning and use that to teach itself something about the world in which those documents were created.

Now jump over to SmartNews and understand that our algorithms are processing 10 million news stories each day and figuring out the most important news of the moment. Not only are we looking for what’s important, we’re also determining which section to feature the story, how prominently, where to cut the headline and how to best crop the thumbnail photo.

The algorithm is continually being trained and the questions that it kicks back are just as interesting as the choices it makes.

The push and pull between discovery, diversity, and relevance are all inputs into the ever-evolving algorithm. Today I learned about “exploration vs. exploitation”. How do we tell our users the most important stories of the day in a way that covers the bases but also teaches you something new?

This is a developing story, stay tuned!

Francis Ford Coppola on the Amateur

in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse Francis Ford Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, chronicled the filming and production of her husband’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now. It’s an fascinating film, a meta-commentary of the American entertainment industry as a metaphor for American imperialism and the war in Vietnam. I highly recommend it.

The clip above comes right before the credits start rolling. A weary Francis looks forward to the return of the amateur who practices film making purely for the art. It’s a prescient glimpse to the world of YouTube and Snapchat artists where we find ourselves today, a refreshing support of new art forms from a lion of the old.

To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, and some… just people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And you know, suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera recorder. And for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever. And it will really become an art form. That’s my opinion.

Modern Family take on Noah

Variety reports that the TV sitcom Modern Family is going to film an entire episode featuring the UI of phones, laptops, and tablets as a way to tell a story. The idea came from a short film, Noah, that debuted at the 2013 Toronto Film festival and won many awards for it’s innovative commentary on our device-mediated society.

I’ve embedded Noah below (kinda NSFW, remember Chatroulette?). I look forward to Modern Family’s treatment which will air on ABC February 25th with the title “Connection Lost”

Apple Design Extends to Process

Like everyone else I too read through 17,000 word profile of Apple Design chief Jony Ive. It’s extensive and well worth your time if you want to get a sense of the scope of Apple’s vision and how they think about design.

What struck me most was the passage below which shows you just how much of a lead Apple has when it comes to it’s intellectual property. It’s not just the idea, it’s not even the physical design of their products, the materials or dimensions. Apple design IP extends to how their products are made, the speed and force with which the tools cut the metal.

“Years ago, you thought you’d fulfilled your responsibility, as a designer, if you could accurately define the form”—in drawings or a model. Now, Ive said, “our deliverable just begins with form.” The data that Apple now sends to a manufacturer include a tool’s tracking path, speed, and appropriate level of lubricant. Ive noted that the studio’s prototyping expertise creates the theoretical risk of beautiful dumb ideas.

Brian Williams – the pressures to promote

Two perspectives of the modern war correspondent in this age of the personal brand and selfie sticks.

We want our anchors to be both good at reading the news and also pretending to be in the middle of it. That’s why, when the forces of man or Mother Nature whip up chaos, both broadcast and cable news outlets are compelled to ship the whole heaving apparatus to far-flung parts of the globe, with an anchor as the flag bearer.

We want our anchors to be everywhere, to be impossibly famous, globe-trotting, hilarious, down-to-earth, and above all, trustworthy. It’s a job description that no one can match.

– the late David Carr in Brian Williams, Retreading Memories From a Perch Too Public

The correspondent retelling war stories surely knows that fellow correspondents had faced the same dangers or worse. More important, they knew that the GIs or Marines they were on patrol with or with whom they were sharing an outpost faced these and greater dangers every day. The troops obviously were the story; not the reporter. To brag about one’s own little brush with danger was unseemly; it was simply bad form.

– former Wall Street Journal war correspondent, Peter Kann, Things a War Correspondent Should Never Say

Richard Engel, please take note.

David Carr

David Carr left us today. He was simultaneously optimistic about the adaptability of the news media in the modern age while pessimistic about the agility of the institutions that were the keepers, underwriters, and employers of those that practice the craft in its current form. He was conflicted which way to go, like a man astrid two ice floes drifting apart.

Their tiny netbooks and iPhones, which serve as portals to the cloud, contain more informational firepower than entire newsrooms possessed just two decades ago. And they are ginning content from their audiences in the form of social media or finding ways of making ambient information more useful. They are jaded in the way youth requires, but have the confidence that is a gift of their age as well.

The Fall and Rise of Media