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Office

SmartNews Pro Tip: Save it for Later

smartnews_iconSmartNews is focused on today’s news. Because of this the app is optimized for showing you the most important stories of the moment. The idea is to get you up to speed on what’s going on and then on with your day. If we do our job well there, the thinking goes, you’ll be back.

That said, there are times when you’re glancing at the latest headlines and you run across a meaty profile in Vanity Fair or a lengthy speech transcript in Medium. I’ve seen comments in the App Store where people are looking for a way to save articles for later. There are a couple of options that I’d like to share.

Read it later with Pocket

SmartNews is integrated with Pocket. Create an account at Pocket or login with your existing one. When you share from the article page on SmartNews (another pro tip, a long press on any headline will go directly to the save menu), you have the option to Save to Pocket. Once you’ve saved it here you can go back to Pocket on the Web and read the full text of the article later. If you upgrade to Pocket Premium, they will even download, index, and archive the full text of anything you save to Pocket making later retrieval easier.

Hear it later with Pocket

Pocket TTS

Pocket recently added Text-to-Speech to their mobile app. I ride my bike to work so sometimes it’s better to have a long article read to me. This afternoon I listened to the transcript of Jennifer Granick’s excellent keynote at Black Hat 2015, The End of the Internet Dream which was posted on Medium.

It somehow seemed appropriate to have the same voice that speaks to me as Siri explaining how important it is to keep the internet open and decentralized.

Show more, is that an archive?

SmartNews Read More

Well, kinda. While we try as much as possible to keep things lightweight in the SmartNews app, we recognize that you might sometimes go more than several hours in between SmartNews fixes. We hear you. But if you’re hearing about that great story in the morning and it’s no longer there, we’ve got your back!

Scroll to the bottom of any tab other than Top and you’ll see a “Show more” link that will show you more articles in the channel. We can’t store everything but it’ll at least extend your horizon a few more hours if you want to dig in a little further.

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Current Events

Back when News was Physical

etaoin shrdlu are the first line of letters on a linotype keyboard, arranged based on frequency. The phrase is used to mark the end of a column. It is also the title of a short documentary about the last run of the linotype machines at the New York Times on July 2, 1978.

There are all sorts of wonderful details in this 30-minute film. We learn the origin of words such as hot type and mattress and are shown how a “pig” of lead is melted down to cast type forms.

The mechanical crank and whirl of the linotype machines are wonderful sound, especially when contrasted with the castanet-like crackle of the new chicklet keyboards on the the new mainframe terminals shown later in the film. As the 9pm first edition deadline approaches, the “make up men” hunch over their tables side-by-side with page editors physically laying out the paper on full page forms. There’s a wonderful exchange as they figure out how to make the page work, a construction project of words.

Farewell – ETAOIN SHRDLU – 1978 from Linotype: The Film

These days are long gone now but I’m glad for this film which captures a technology that was a wonder of its day.

h/t Open Culture

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Current Events

Recycled Gear Goes to Africa

One of my volunteer activities is to serve as the Webmaster (I love that retro-cool title) for the Alameda Soccer Club. It’s a pretty large organization serving the 1,300+ kids in our neighborhood, completely staffed by unpaid volunteers and it does a great job of getting the kids excited about the sport.

This Summer we received a request by an Alameda native who is serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was home for the holidays. Many kids in her village loved to play soccer but often didn’t have any equipment so she wondered if we could donate any used gear for her to take back to Africa upon her return.

I put the word out and Alameda responded. There was too much for her to take back with her so her father packed it up and shipped it off. The other day she sent back photos and in with all the photos was a one of a kid in West Africa trying out my son’s old cleats!

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Current Events

Hiroshima, 70 years on

Last year, on July 4th, I visited Hiroshima with Izumi and the kids to see first-hand the city and the memorial.

Hiroshima (literally means flat island) was one of two sites bombed by atomic weapons. It was chosen because it was relatively unscathed by previous bombings and military scientists wanted to measure the effectiveness of an aerial detonation. Nagasaki (long cape), the other target, was on different terrain and that bomb was detonated on the ground. In each case, military personnel were sent to each city to carefully measure the destruction they had wrought.

The lone standing building survived the blast because it occurred directly overhead by several hundred meters.

Hiroshima Aerial Detination

The museum in Peace Park has many artifacts from August 6, 1945 including section from a stone bridge that still has the shadow of a person that was literally vaporized by the blast. There are many personal stories told by survivors posted next to items salvaged from the wreckage. How one man saw his hand melt off because it was on a windowsill and a schoolgirl who was home sick from school and was the only one from her entire class to survive.

There is also a stopwatch frozen at the exact moment the bomb went off.

Hiroshima Pocket Watch

What really struck me were some of the documents preserved which captured the debate on the US side over the deployment of this terrible weapon and presaged the arms race that would follow. There is a letter from Albert Einstein to FDR, minutes from a meeting with some of the contractors that worked on the bomb (General Electric, duPont), and declassified Top Secret notes from the Target Committee.

But most disturbing was an excerpt from the Franck Report from June 11, 1945 written by some of the scientists involved with the Manhattan Project that built the bomb. In it they plead with military leadership to consider demonstrating the power of the atomic bomb on an uninhabited island as a way to coerce Japan into surrender.

Franck Report

Highlighted above is a passage that would come to haunt our world for many years hence.

We believe that these considerations make the use of nuclear bombs for an early, unannounced attack against Japan inadvisable. If the United States would be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race of armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons.

Something to think about as we debate our current negotiations with Iran.

Further Reading:

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Current Events

Italian Foo Fighters Fans Wishes Granted

1,000 Foo Fighters fans gathered in a field in Cesena, Italy to play Learn to Fly to get the band’s attention and to listen to their plea to play a concert in Italy. Maybe you’ve seen the video which was all over the ‘nets. It’s pretty awesome.

The band noticed, later posting Ci vediamo a presto, Cesena…. xxx Davide from their twitter account. Google Translate tells me it says, “See you soon, Cesena”

Today Dave Grohl, the band’s leader posted this video response in Italian.

In awe.

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Current Events

Spotify’s Mixtape Algorithm

With the launch of Apple Music’s “For You” feature, Spotify hand has been forced to unveil it’s own personalization engine in response. Discover Weekly was launched today via a series of well-timed pieces published today across the tech press. The PR push is on to explain to everyone currently evaluating Apple Music on a 3-month trial.

Spotify describes Discover Weekly as, “like having your best friend make you a personalised mixtape every single week.” More specifically,  “Updated every Monday morning, Discover Weekly brings you two hours of custom-made music recommendations, tailored specifically to you and delivered as a unique Spotify playlist.”

Spotify, to date, has relied mostly on the social sharing of tracks and manually curated playlists (more than 2 billion!) to enhance the experience of the Spotify subscriber. The coverage today highlights the contribution of Echo Nest, an music intelligence and data platform acquired by Spotify in March of 2014. Reading a number of posts we learn the following:

Spotify’s internal tool that they use to build playlists has the wonderful moniker, Truffle Pig.

Inside Spotify’s Hunt for the Perfect Playlist

and,

The Echo Nest’s job within Spotify is to endlessly categorize and organize tracks. The team applies a huge number of attributes to every single song: Is it happy or sad? Is it guitar-driven? Are the vocals spoken or sung? Is it mellow, aggressive, or dancy? On and on the list goes. Meanwhile, the software is also scanning blogs and social networks—ten million posts a day, Lucchese says—to see the words people use to talk about music. With all this data combined, The Echo Nest can start to figure out what a “crunk” song sounds like, or what we mean when we talk about “dirty south” music.

Smart.

maybe some of the songs are bad, or the lead-off song isn’t representative of the rest of the playlist—we’ll try to refine that and give it a shot.” Playlists are made by people, but they live and die by data.

This is another way of underlining the best practices of machine learning. An algorithm is really only as good as it’s training set.

In order to keep a burst of listens from drifting your taste profile towards a fleeting interest, something re/code’s Kafka calls, “the Minions Problem“, Spotify isolates isolated wandering from the core.

Spotify says it solves the Minions Problem by identifying “taste clusters” and looking for outliers. So if you normally listen to 30-year-old indie rock but suddenly have a burst of Christmas music in your listening history, it won’t spend the next few weeks feeding you Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The same goes for kids’ music, which is apparently why Spotify knows I didn’t really like “Happy” that much — it was just in the “Despicable Me 2” soundtrack.

Spotify has built its discovery algorithm on the listening behaviors of its 75 million users while Apple has advertised a more top-heavy approach using designated curators that publish playlists for a mass audience. I have to wonder what happened to all the Genius data that has been gathered after analyzing everyone’s iTunes collections and wonder if we’ll see that being used to balance out Apple’s approach.

I’ve heard that Spotify is working on a “family plan” that would let me break out the collective profile built up on my Spotify account that I share with my kids. That will yield more relevant personal recommendations so I don’t get the hip-hop heavy playlist that greeted me due to my son’s heavy rotation.

I think it’s still very early days and consumers will ultimately benefit in the music recommendation race that has just begun.

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Current Events

Fun with Google Trends Real Time

Google Trends announced last week that they’ve upgraded their service to be real time. Using their tools, I created a dashboard so you can quickly see who’s trending in Google Search for the past 7 days. If I did this right, this page should continually update.

I’ll manually add/remove names as the list of candidates change.

Democratic Party

Republican Party*

*There are too many in the field to fit on Google’s graph (Google Trends only takes up to five terms to compare). I took the top five announced candidates in the polls.

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Current Events

Presidential Candidate 404 Pages

As the 2016 US Presidential Election gets going, each candidates website 404 pages give us a rare glimpse into the personality behind each campaign. Let’s have a look.

Democrats

Hillary Rodham Clinton – her page looks like a misplaced snapshot and speaks to the basic, simplistic style of her Middle American base. Look what we found!

hillaryclinton404

Lawrence Lessig – not really one for smalltalk, just gives you the data.

Lawrence Lessig error page

Martin O’Malley – great if you think your candidate is going to be the next George Washington.

martinomalley404

Bernie Sanders – bonus points for the down-home folksy message on the embedded video. “The good news is you’re on the right web site . . . the bad news is you’re on-the-wrong-page. Just scoot down . . . and you’ll find your way back home.”

berniesanders404

Republican

Jeb Bush – his “wat” page has been localized – you can also access the page in Spanish.

jebbush404

Ben Carson – plain and direct, no-nonsense and frankly boring.

bencarson404

Chris Christie – updated with a clip of the Governor dancing with Jimmy Fallon

Ted Cruz – redirects back to the homepage, there are no wrong answers.

Carly Fiorina – looks real professional but it’s really just window dressing

carlyfiorina404

Lindsey Graham – Oops indeed. It looks naked.

lindseygraham404

Mike Huckabee – includes share buttons just in case you want to share a cute photo of Mike with his dog.

mikehuckabee404

Bobby Jindal – blames Obama for the missing page and then asks for a donation.

Bobby Jindal 404

John Kasich – Lost? Brother, can you spare a dime?

johnkasich 404

George Pataki – at least you know who to call to blame

georgepataki404

Rand Paul – updated with a dig at the NSA.

Rick Perry – still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.

rickperry404

Marco Rubio – slick promotional video recovers the mistake

marcorubio404

Rick Santorum – always looking for an opportunity to make fun of Hillary.

ricksantorum404

Donald Trump – Error.

Trump404

Scott Walker – thaar be pirates there to steal your loot.

Scott Walker 404

Further Reading:

Categories
Current Events

My Pushcart in Yokohama

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a year off to teach English in Japan to help pay for tuition. Having experienced taco truck street food while attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, I yearned for the late night snack and saw an opportunity to introduce a decent street taco to the Tokyo late-night crowd. Japan had not discovered Mexican food back in the 80s. Tacos were a caricature of the real thing, cabbage was often substituted for lettuce and the only tortillas you could find were El Paso’s fried hard shells at the expat grocery store. 

There is a long tradition of street food in Japan. Scores of ramen or oden pushcarts (yatai) could be found at every railway station with groups of salarymen grabbing a bite after a long day at the office or a night of karaoke. The yatai business is hyper-competitive and you would often spot dusty old pushcarts under railroad bridges, abandoned by someone who had tried and failed to bootstrap their career. My thought was to reclaim one of these old carts, fix it up, and introduce my tacos in the streets of Tokyo after my evening English lessons. Encouraged by my fellow English teachers, I felt I had a core group of regular customers with which to start and it seemed easy enough to fix up an old yatai, find a spare spot, and set up shop. Boy was I wrong.

Locating an old yatai that was abandoned and in decent condition was easy enough. During my spare time between classes I found some carts that were parked a good distance away from any station that appeared no longer in use. There were several of them in what looked like an old yatai graveyard. I found an old one that clearly had not been used for a long time and left a note asking if I could take it. I came back several days in a row to check. When I was confident the owner was long gone, I set to work refurbishing it for service.

I visited the local government office to ask what was required to open a yatai and received a document with several pages of requirements. My basic Japanese translation of the document listed out things such as a source of running water, refrigeration, and a way to keep the food warm. All these would be examined at an inspection by the health authorities before I could get a license.

Perhaps it was my naiveté but I chose a creatively liberal interpretation to meet these requirements:

  • Running water? A 20-gallon plastic jug with a hose connected to a spigot running into a “sink” which was a plastic bucket with a hole drilled out of the bottom.
  • Refrigeration? I cut a series of styrofoam panels and glued them to the walls of a cabinet and fashioned a door to seal it shut.
  • Burner? I placed two portable table-top gas burners into a rack I fashioned to hold them and the pots of taco fillings I would serve.

I think the old health inspector took pity on the innocent gaijin kid with a capitalistic gleam in his eye because when I rolled my contraption to the government office for my appointment, he took a cursory glance, listened patiently to my explanation of how I satisfied all the checkboxes on the form, grunted his approval, and stamped my certificate! All I needed now was a location, this is when I learned about the yakuza.

The yatai business in Japan, is lightly regulated by the government (as demonstrated by my easy approval), but strictly controlled by the yakuza. The area immediately around each train or subway station, while clear during the day, hosts a warren of cozy little noodle stands that crop up around 8 or 9 pm each evening. Every open spot is “controlled” by the local gang who takes a share of the revenues as “protection money” to keep things running smoothly. The yakuza runs interference with the local government, police, and rival gangs to keep them out of the hair of the proprietors and for this service, each yatai owner pays the gang a cut of their profits. A noodle stand can clear between $1000 – $3000 a night so it’s a good business so long as everyone’s happy and things are running smoothly.

My English school was near Yokohama station, a major terminus south of Tokyo so the streets leading to the station were already crowded with many yatai, all with their own specialties and faithful regulars. Of course no one was serving tacos so I felt that was my in. I had scouted out a location on a street under a nearby highway overpass that was in between a busy nightclub district and the station so I felt I could grab some people on their way home or going out for the evening. It was also on the way home from the English school so convenient for the teachers and students as well. It appeared that the space was open so I asked the nearby yatai owners if it would be ok if I opened my stand in that spot.

There is a clear pecking order among all the yatai and I was directed to one stand lording over a fork in the road, a prime spot at the nexus of two major walking routes to the station. The yatai was a ramen cart and the broad shouldered proprietor had such a steady stream of clientele that he required two satellite tables to serve all his customers. I bought a bowl of his excellent tonkotsu and after making small talk about the secret of his broth, explained my street taco concept and how I might go about securing a spot down the road and how much the “protection money” would cost. He explained to me that I would have to meet “the man,” explain my business, and this person would negotiate a fee and grant his permission. I asked when I might meet this mysterious person who didn’t have a name and was told that he would introduce me when appropriate.

Several nights passed and each time I would stop by the ramen stand and ask if “the man” was around and each time was told I had either just missed him or that he had not come by that night. Finally, after about two weeks, I decided that the only way I was going to meet this guy was just to set up my stand and he would come by sooner or later, the chips would fall and I would then know what I was working with. I made final preparations, cooked up a batch of taco fillings to open for business after my last lesson.

Opening night was a roaring success. All the English teachers and several students came by to try out my 300 yen tacos. I sold cans of beer out of a cooler and all the activity attracted a few curious barmaids on their way to work and they promised to tell their friends. No “man” came by on the first night, neither on the second. Just as I was beginning to wonder if such a guy existed, on the third night a cheery guy just looking for a good time stopped by and was full of questions about what I was doing.

yatai1

My imagination prepared me for some scarface gangster in a black suit and red tie but I was totally thrown off by this guy with the fashion sense of a carnival barker. He was such a bundle of joy I showered him with free beers and tacos and me and my English teacher friends quickly won him over. He clearly enjoyed the music we were playing (I think it was Aretha Franklin) and loved the vibe. Later that evening, as I was cleaning things up and he was on his 5th can of Asahi Dry , I broached the topic of “rent” and he shrugged it off and patted me on the shoulder and said that he wanted to do his bit for international relations and sponsor my stand gratis!

yatai2

I continued the stand the rest of that year, later bringing on a partner who ran the stand on alternate evenings so I could get some time off. One evening it was pouring rain so my partner and I decided not to open for business. The next night, when I was setting up, he was waiting for me, sitting on the curb. He scolded me saying that if I wanted to establish regular customers it was imperative that I be open, rain or shine. A fundamental rule of business that I have never forgotten.

My yatai adventure ended that Summer as I got ready to return to college but I’ll never forget the lessons I learned. The hardest part of starting a business is starting. Once you gain momentum, people and promise have a way of materializing and turning your dream into reality. And with the right attitude, barriers that you imagine for yourself are just that, your imagination. Chip away at anything and it’s all just people.

yatai-pinto

Categories
Current Events

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.