The week that was (11-09-18)

An uninhabited island off the coast of Japan vanished. No one noticed until a photographer went looking to update his book of Japan’s “hidden” islands.

A former pro boxer was taken down by a croissant. Mario Melo died while choking on his third croissant in a croissant-eating contest.

Harley Davidson unveiled an electric motorcycle.

A Chinese pork-producer, facing a bit of a cashflow problem, is paying off its bondholders in ham. “Payment in kind becomes PIH (Pay In Ham).”

The Japan Post has begun unmanned drone document delivery in Fukushima.

Researchers in Sweden have figured out how to store solar energy in liquid form, essentially “bottling sunlight.”

A dead man was elected in Nevada. Dennis Hof, who ran the Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada recently died while celebrating his 73rd birthday.

Two Marine Corps pilots were grounded after it was revealed that the “irregular flight pattern” they were flying drew the shape of a huge phallus.

Photo credit: Twitter user @muumi5x15

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Post-Midterm Trump

I am shocked at how this president treats the press. I can appreciate how the relationship is adversarial, that is healthy, but there is no reason for him to hurl insults from the podium and say things like, “You are a rude, terrible person,” to Jim Acosta from CNN.

Il Duce

Good for Peter Alexander from NBC to step in and stand up for Jim’s character but that didn’t prevent him from getting some collateral damage of his own.  “Well I’m not a big fan of yours either,” Trump said.

Later in the day,  Acosta’s press credentials to the White House were taken away because of, “placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern.” A tweet from the White House Press Secretary makes it sound as if Acosta assaulted the woman in some way. But if you look at the video above, it does not seem to be that way at all. Acosta was just trying to hang on to the mic to finish his question and even said, “Pardon me, ma’am.” No assault or “karate chop.”

A couple of months ago, SmartNews hosted Dan Rather at an event at the annual Online News Association conference in Austin. Speaking to a room of fellow journalists, Mr. Rather warned of events such as the one above and stressed the importance of journalists sticking together through what he saw as a very dark time ahead. Here are a few clips from his speech.

I’m glad to see that CNN, NBC, Peter Alexander the White House Correspondents’ Association are standing behind Jim Acosta. Everyone who believes in a free press should do the same.

Chuck Yeager

“On December 10, 1963, while testing an NF-104A rocket-augmented aerospace trainer, he narrowly escaped death when his aircraft went out of control at 108,700 feet (nearly 21 miles up) and crashed. He parachuted to safety at 8,500 feet after vainly battling to gain control of the powerless, rapidly falling craft. In this incident he became the first pilot to make an emergency ejection in the full pressure suit needed for high altitude flights.” (from the biography of General Chuck Yeager)

The movie, The Right Stuff, depicts the crash in all its terror. In reality, General Yeager was talking with his chase plane pilot and the ground crew about what was happening as a test pilot does so they could take their notes and gather data.

In an interview, listen to Chuck Yeager describe the incident depicted in the film clip above. He’s all business describing the way things were supposed to work, what he suspects went wrong, and how he calmly thought through what he needed to do to survive.

I know it’s been said before but this guy has nerves of steel.

The week that was (11-02-18)

The world’s first, all-robot restaurant opened in Beijing. “Robots will take orders, prepare and deliver raw meat and fresh vegetables to customers to plop into soups prepared at their tables.” The mechanized helpers will, “lower labor costs and boost efficiency” and allow the Haidilao, the $10 billion eatery chain, to open a planned 5,000 new branches worldwide.

Multiple counties in Texas issued instructions to voters to check their ballots prior to submitting them because some machines were changing or de-selecting votes.

Nebraska congressman Jeff Fortenberry made a lot of noise about a University of Nebraska professor liking a Facebook post showing a doctored campaign sign that changed his name to Fartenberry. This of course delighted the media which was desperate for an alternative to 24-hour Trump news.

A Russian scientist working in Antarctica is facing attempted murder charges after allegedly stabbing a colleague for telling him the endings of books he wanted to read.

Miners unearthed a 1.1 kg emerald in Zambia. The 5,655 karat-stone with  “remarkable clarity and a perfectly balanced golden green hue,” was found in Kagem, the world’s largest emerald mine.

Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in San Francisco, has a large programmable display covering the top floors. It was designed to be an art installation for the citizens to celebrate the the pride and beauty of their city. Cheeky residents promptly petitioned and were granted a wish to display a giant flaming Eye of Sauron during Halloween.

It was discovered that for the past two and half years an elderly Japanese employee of Shinjuku Gardens in Tokyo was too afraid to ask foreigners to pay the $2 admission fee and was letting them in for free. It’s been calculated that he has cost the gardens almost a quarter million dollars in lost revenue.

October Books, a small independent community bookshop in England, put out a call to their neighborhood to form a human bucket brigade which helped it move it’s stock, book-by-book, to its new location down the street.

A drunk baggage worker at the Kansas City airport decided to take a nap inside the hold of an airline and woke up in Chicago.

Photo credit: Reddit user JustTom1

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Grandma’s Recipes

Izumi turned me on to a YouTube channel she’s discovered that features lovingly documents the kitchen recipes of an older, sometimes forgotten, generation in Japan. Each short vignette explores the life of these women who fed their family with what they had and passed on traditions of their region.

From the producers:

Our team especially tries to focus on eccentric, lovely but “Rock” ladies above the age of 80, who have lived through World War Two. We interview them with great care, and through their recipes which represents the relationships they share with those they care about, we are able to uncover great depth in their life stories. We want to spread those stories to the young generations living today. We believe that if we can share the stories of those beautiful and loving ladies to the world, regardless of borders and languages, people may appreciate even the dinner table just a little bit more.

Grandma’s Recipes
Masami-san has lived a hard life in Nagano and reflects on her grand life of 99 years.
Keiko comes from a wealthy family in Tokyo. During the war, she made a frying pan out of unexploded bomb.

Personalized Discovery

When asked what we’re trying to build at SmartNews, I sometimes explain it with a department store metaphor. When algorithms are applied to online shopping, they are optimized to show you exactly what you are looking for. Amazon and Netflix are famous for perfecting the “others-that-bought-what-you-bought-also-bought-this” algorithm to great effect.

If you’re looking for a red sweater, they will show you the best red sweater. But that only works if you’re looking for a red sweater.

What if you are just browsing around? What if you are wandering around, looking for inspiration, not sure what exactly you want? Japan has a some of the world’s best department stores. They are wonderful at curating interesting things from around the world and introducing them to the sophisticated urban consumer. They have a long tradition of doing this.

Marvis toothpaste from Italy comes in Aquatic Mint, Cinnamon Mint, Classic Mint, Ginger Mint, Jasmine Mint, and Amarelli Licorice

Ginza has a new department store called Ginza Six that opened a couple years ago. Besides these wonderfully packaged $20 tubes of toothpaste from Italy (above) you can also check out the completely impractical spiked boots (below). It’s a curious browser’s delight.

Totally impractical but cool, nonetheless

What I’m getting at is that SmartNews is trying to re-create the Japanese Department Store experience online with news. I keep talking about “hidden gems” and this is what I mean. You never know what you’re going to find but we’ll do our best to make an algorithm which is optimized for finding something serendipitously, interesting.

Anyway, more on this in this interview with my boss, Rich Jaroslovsky, below as he describes the concept of “personalized discovery.”

The key is personalized discovery. Of course that also means sometimes users will see stories they don’t like. I’m generalizing, but a conservative might see a Mother Jones story, or a liberal might see something from Fox News.

That’s probably the biggest complaint we get: That the stories are all “left wing,” or “right wing.”  But when we look at studies about user engagement in news apps, our audience is far more engaged than that of any other news app.

My argument is that those are two sides of the same coin. As a 40-year journalist, when all you see is stuff you already know or already think you’re interested in… news gets boring. There’s no serendipity. You don’t get to learn anything new. You don’t get to discover.

That’s the textbook definition of a filter bubble.

Our goal is to puncture filter bubbles.

Tired of Filter Bubbles? This Free News App Can Help You Find Stories You Just Might Love

SmartNews & Breaker

As a commuter, I have two blocks of time going to and from the office when I am not able to read. During these times, I listen to podcasts as a way to get a deeper perspective on the news of the day or learn something new.

Most podcast apps ask you to subscribe or follow podcasts you like and push new episodes to you each time you open the app. As you add new shows to your “feed” you inevitably get overwhelmed with a backlog of unlistened episodes which discourages you from finding new episodes.

SmartNews adds podcasts from Breaker

Breaker was the first app I found that solved this problem by adding a social network to the platform. Breaker pays attention to their users’ behavior of listening, liking, and commenting to determine how to rank the best episodes. Instead of subscribing to shows, you listen to episodes. The selection is more granular and has more variety. As with other social networks, because you get a daily feed which you graze through, the pressure to clear your queue is removed.

I believe podcasts are an important component of the media diet of anyone that is interested in current events. The intimacy of hearing a primary source tell their story is unique to audio and I have been eager to find a way to add podcasts in a meaningful way to the SmartNews app. My initial attempt was to leverage SmartNews’ algorithm to locate and feature podcasts in a single channel but the results were never quite right.

  • The SmartNews algorithm is optimized for text so the selection and ranking of stories didn’t work well.
  • Sometimes the audio would stop when you put the app into the background or your phone went into standby mode.
  • Each episode’s page featured a play button in a different location on the page so the user had to hunt around to find it.

The Breaker app solved all these problems and I was eager to find a way to introduce elements of what Breaker had to offer to SmartNews users.

The Podcast channel on SmartNews

I met with Erik Berlin, co-founder of Breaker, and we talked about how SmartNews might be able to integrate Breaker’s social ranking of stories to create a channel that would feature the best episodes to SmartNews users in a way they could sample what they had to offer easily, within the SmartNews app.

The Breaker team worked on a feed of popular stories on their network that we could integrate into SmartNews. They built an episode page with a built in player that continued to play in the background and featured a prominent play button that was placed in a consistent location for quick and easy access. The idea was to give SmartNews iOS and Android users a place to go to discover the best audio stories of the day to introduce them to this new aspect of story-telling.

I hope you enjoy the new Podcast channel on SmartNews (if you’re on mobile and don’t have SmartNews, you can download it here). If you find yourself embracing podcasts as I do, download the Breaker app to unlock extra features where you can share and discuss your favorite episodes on their social network.

Oh, and if you’re curious about what I’m listening to and enjoy, follow me on Breaker at @iankennedy

The week that was (10-26-2018)

Political rivals, running against each other for a House seat in Vermont, asked for extra time after their debate, to make music together.

A car thief in England was caught when his DNA was found on lip balm left in the car he had stolen and abandoned.

Due to an influx of Asian immigrants into Sydney, piano sales are booming.

The Museum of the Bible in Washington DC confessed that five of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display were, in fact, forgeries.

NASA scientists fixed the gyroscope in the Hubble telescope using the oldest trick in the IT toolkit, turning it off and back on again.

Volocopter, an air taxi company, announced that Singapore will begin trials next year of a new “driverless hover-taxi” that fly through the air to avoid traffic.

A man in India was killed by a group of monkeys that organized and threw bricks at him.

A work of art generated by artificial intelligence sold at Christie’s for over $400,000.

Photo credit: Reddit user KTKhujo

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The week that was (10-19-2018)

A Belgian Air Force mechanic accidentally opened fire on and destroyed a fully-fueled F-16 fighter jet while servicing another warplane on the tarmac.  Two mechanics are being treated for hearing loss caused by the blast. 

Police in Savannah, GA are looking for the vandal who put “googly eyes” on statue of Nathaniel Greene, a general in the Revolutionary War . 

The US embassy in Australia apologized after mistakenly sending out an email, titled “Meeting” with a photo of a tabby cat wearing a blue Cookie Monster outfit and holding a plate of choc-chip biscuits, beneath the title “cat pajama-jam.”

For the first time since at least 1993 New York City went an entire weekend without anyone getting shot.

Designer Benjamin Edgar is selling a hanger cut from a single, solid plate of thick, hand-brushed stainless steel for $700.

A man in Georgia robbed a Subway sandwich shop after ordering a sandwich and then ran back in to grab his sandwich.

A city in China plans to launch a satellite that will act as an “artificial moon” to help light the streets of the city.

The Ecuadorian Embassy in London is getting a little tired of their guest, Julian Assange. They have taken away his wifi access until he does a better job of cleaning up the bathroom and taking care of his cat. Julian Assange has threatened legal action.

Lia Ditton finished rowing from San Francisco to Los Angeles in three weeks in preparation for a trip next year across the Pacific.

Marijuana was legalized in Canada this week and an entrepreneurial girl scout saw her chance. 9-year old Elina Childs set up her cookie stand in front of Nova Cannabis and completely sold out in less than an hour. 
“Everybody was respectful, everybody was happy, and she walked away from it as this incredibly positive experience as well as selling out all her Brownie cookies,” said her proud father.

Photo credit: Reddit user seanbrockest

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