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

Native Podcast Players

The New York Times app added a native podcast player that does an excellent job of complimenting their news rather than competing with it. The player was launched to support The Daily, their flagship news show.

What is really interesting about this player is that it lets the user continue to browse while listening. Tap play to listen and then swipe away when you’re done. That’s it.

What’s great about this is that it keeps you in the NYTimes app and doesn’t send you elsewhere to consume audio. You remain in the NYT experience.

  1. Simple and unobtrusive.
  2. Allows simultaneous browsing and listening.
  3. Continues to play in the background, even if you switch apps or put the phone in your pocket.
  4. Dual platform, iOS and Android
  5. Provides link to subscribe to future episodes in your phone’s default podcast app. It does not try to compete with your existing podcast app.

The Experience

When you tap on play, you get a welcome message with simple explanation of how the player works.

As you’re listening, the player goes grey so as not to visually compete with text of the article. This use case is immediately obvious because you can browse the show notes while reading the article or read the source article while listening to associated podcast (The Daily often features interviews with the authors behind major feature pieces).

The podcast will continue to play while browsing other stories or checking other apps, it’ll also play in the background after you put your phone in your pocket.

Audio switches if you listen to another audio app (ie. music app, YouTube). The NYT player saves your place so you can go back to the NYT app and pick up where you left off.

Swipe left to dismiss.

Tapping on the player “chicklet” brings up more controls so you pause/play and scrub back and forth or skip forward or backwards 10 seconds. There is also a link to subscribe to the full podcast via your installed podcast app (Apple Podcast app on iOS, RadioPublic Free Podcasts App on Google Play Store on my Android device).

From the NY Times press release announcing the player,

The in-app player will allow audio to continue playing even if you navigate away from it, leave the app or put your device to sleep, allowing you to read through related articles and other content while you listen. Audio can be controlled within the app, with the device level controls, or even with an Apple Watch.

I think the level of integration of the New York Times podcast player is perfect. It’s just enough to extend the story without getting in the way.  All it takes is a tap to play or a swipe to dismiss but there are hooks into a full-fledged podcast app should you want to subscribe or download for late.

I see more of this and it would be really cool if the NYT Labs could share their code on their Github repository so others can take advantage of what they’ve done and perhaps improve on it.

Other native players

Others publishers are adding native players to augment their text stories as well.

Glomar Response

We finally got a decent winter storm here in California which meant that instead of my usual train/ferry & bike commute I had to shlep it home on a bus to stay dry. The bus is comfortable but it involves a good 60 minutes so it’s a good time to catch up on podcasts.

Today I listened to a fascinating piece which told the story of the “Glomar Response” which is that foggy response that a PR flack gives when they want to answer a question with a non-response.

“We can neither confirm nor deny. . .”

When did such a phrase come about? What were the circumstances that required someone to come up with such a turn of a phrase? The good folks at Radiolab dug in and found the answer. Give it a listen, it’s an amazing piece of cold war yarn.

Here’s the Alameda connection. A sister ship to the Hughes Glomar Explorer was the HMB-1. This was basically a floating dry dock which had ballast tanks that would flood and submerge the dock underwater beneath the Explorer. Inside was the massive claw device used to grab the submarine mentioned in the story. The sub could then be pulled into the docking bay while it’s still underwater and the HMB-1  surfaced and the retractable roof pulled back over on top, all the while hiding its cargo from the prying eyes of Soviet spy satellites. It’s all very James Bond.

Later, the HMB-1 was commissioned by the Navy for the Sea Shadow, an experimental ship built back in the 80’s when stealth technology was all the rage.

The Sea Shadow

The HMB-1 was designed to hold this top secret boat, again, to keep it from prying eyes between engagements.

Sea Shadow inside the HMB-1

The Sea Shadow never was produced and it, along with it’s floating/submersible covered dry dock was eventually mothballed in Suisun Bay north of Martinez.

The Alameda connection takes place several years later when the Navy decides to auction the whole package off.

Even though Bay Ship & Yacht Company would eventually be awarded the vessel, the company’s bid wasn’t the highest. “The highest bidder was a Chinese outfit, I believe,” Cameron said. “Even though the Sea Shadow project had been declassified, there were still some privacy issues, so the government didn’t want to sell her to a foreign entity.

And the second highest bidder, which was a company in the Gulf Coast, backed out when they realized how much it would cost to move her down there. We actually wrote it off as ‘not gonna happen’ when we found out we’d been outbid. Then we got a call a month later letting us know she was ours if we still wanted her.

The $2.5 million price tag was small compared to the $15-$20 million that it would cost to build a new traditional dry dock, which Bay Ship & Yacht had been considering for some time. “And we wouldn’t have that cover, which makes HMB-1 such a strong and unique piece of equipment,” Cameron said. He estimates that to build HMB-1 now would cost upwards of $50 million.

The biggest challenge that shipbuilders and ship repairers face with traditional open-air dry docks is weather. Rain (or any moisture) and wind can bring a job to a screeching halt, making income harder to come by during winter months. “HMB-1 is definitely going to be an asset in that respect this winter,” Cameron said. “But it’s the ability to be more efficient and the environmental aspects that we’re all really excited about.

Bay Ship & Yacht Repurposes Top-Secret CIA Project to Go Green

Bay Ship & Yacht Company is, “one of America’s leading service, refit and new construction yards for super yachts and commercial vessels” based on the old naval base on the West End of Alameda. If you have ever taken the ferry over to the Alameda Antique Fair or visited the old Rosenblum winery, you can see the HMB-1 docked right next to the Main Street ferry terminal.

and now you know

Further Reading:

Breaking Baddest

Breaking Bad is over. I watched the final episode a couple of nights ago. I only first got into the series because I saw from our Netflix queue that my son was watching it and figured I should watch a few episodes to see what was it was about. He got bored and moved on but I got sucked in.

As I made my way through the backlog and then finally started making my way to the final shows, I came to realize that this show about an Walter White’s transformation from a high school chemistry teacher to methamphetamine kingpin was also an allegory for humanity’s decent into addiction. As I binge viewed with the rest of the country and stayed up late to watch one more episode, I realized that I was addicted to the story. As Walt, the person we all cheered for in the beginning, became more twisted, I found myself loathing him for his selfishness. Yet I kept watching.

Today I listed to the final episode of the Breaking Bad Insider podcast that has Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan, talk about some of the story arcs including several alternative endings he proposed. The entire podcast is fascinating and well worth a listen but the bit below is particularly interesting.

In this 4 minute segment, Vince describes an alternative ending which was so disturbing that the network producers spiked it. Have a listen.

Patently Ridiculous

I had a listen to the second part to This American Life’s excellent two part series on patent trolls (the first part is here) and how the use of weaponized software patents is squashing innovation.

The podcast outlined the plight of entrepreneurs too afraid to start business for fears of being sued out of existence by shell companies that own broadly defined patents for no other purpose than to shake down founders too cash strapped to defend themselves. While listening, I recalled an episode that took place while at Yahoo where we were the victim of exactly this type of attack. Here’s how it went down.

It was late-2007 when Todd Sampson, the co-founder of MyBlogLog, the small social network acquired by Yahoo earlier that year, contacted me to tell me that we (Todd and I worked together at MBL while I was at Yahoo) had been contacted by a small company in Israel called Girafa notifying us that the screenshots used on the site were in violation of a patent owned by Girafa.

It was a classic shakedown. Girafa explained that they were preparing a lawsuit in the amount of $5 million but there was an out. We could avoid litigation if we licensed their software. The price? $5 million.

MyBlogLog thumbnails

You can imagine our surprise. Todd has tied together a couple of open-sourced software packages to create a screenshot process that ran on an old PC that literally sat under one of the engineer’s desks. The software was a bit temperamental and would sometimes fall over. We would get complaints for users that their website needed a refreshed screenshot which was our queue to go over and restart the screenshotter machine. It happened enough times to be a minor pain in the neck so we were open to licensed software or web service that was a bit more stable but $5 million was certainly more than we were willing to pay.

Yahoo legal was on the case and they told us that not only MyBlogLog but also delicious and Yahoo Bookmarks were named in the suit along with Alexa (part of Amazon) as well as a few other companies were also part of the suit. All during the course of the lawsuit, we had to have several meetings with the legal team at Yahoo (who were great) but also had to keep copies of all our correspondence and take care when we eventually moved the machine to a Yahoo data center to ensure the screenshot software was not integrated with any other parts of the Yahoo infrastructure to ensure that other divisions in Yahoo couldn’t get ensnared in the lawsuit. At some point Todd had to give a deposition and he even spent an afternoon over at the Internet Archive looking through the Wayback Machine archives to locate old screenshots from HotWired which we remembered used to take screenshots of sites back in late-90’s.

I left Yahoo before I heard what happened so, after listening to the This American Life podcast, I poked around to find out the rest of the story.

I am not a lawyer but from what I can tell, the lawsuit was initially thrown out in late-2008 but documents and paperwork continued to be filed (in hopes of continuing the suit?) all the way into late 2010.Thge Girafa nonsense tied up the courts for a solid three years. Think of the untold wasted hours!

In June of 2011, Google swooped in and purchased Girafa’s patents, supposedly as insurance against any action against Google’s use of thumbnails in their instant preview search results feature. Let’s hope the Girafa patent will stay dormant where it is and not be unleashed again by its new owners to cause a new round of havoc and hand-wringing.

If you go to there’s a sad notice that the service has been discontinued. A sad final chapter for a service that caused nothing but pain and consternation.

Dave McClure: One can only go to Zero

Dave McClure

I was listening to Jason Calacanis interview Dave McClure on his This Week in Startups podcast and had to share this amazing rant on the sorry state of investing in the United States. Dave rants on the lopsided, systemic governmental bias towards the real estate business. The worst you can do when you invest in a start-up is lose all your money while, with real estate, you can leverage your down-payment to the point where you’re upside down on your mortgage and have to have your backing institutions bailed out by the taxpayers.

There will be people in their 70’s who are clearly credited investors with millions of dollars who should not be investing in fucking startups and there are kids with $10 in their pocket who know more than you or I do. Net worth is not the intelligence test for investing in startups.

There’s a certain amount of money that anyone should be able to fucking burn or blow on startups. We encourage a ridiculous amount of money to go into the residential real estate market which has burned people fucking terribly in the last five years. Ridiculous numbers of people in this country are upside down on their mortgages and bankrupt because legitimate, regulatory-approved agents have shoved real estate fucking mortgages down their throats. We have subsidized this with our tax dollars, we are the people.

Like you fucking blame the investment bankers? Fuck You.

It’s you voting for your representatives who are in the pockets of Sallie Mae Ginnie Mae, Fannie Mae, whatever who are shoving shit down the pipe. Like Moody’s and all these other people who have crap verification. . .

If you want to protect the small investor, don’t let them buy a house in this country, because that is the most dangerous thing you can do with your money. Period.

Investing in startups which might fail? You only lose $1. You invest in a house, you put 5% down or sometimes 0% down and you can lever up a ridiculous amount of money. You can lose 20 times your investment and people do it every day and they think it’s a good idea.

The whole interview is amazing but scroll forward to the 1:00:00 for the rant on “accredited investor” requirement for start-up investors.

Chris Sacca on TWiST

Jason Calacanis interviews Chris Sacca on This Week in Startups. It’s an amazing, 2-part episode full of straight talk about the current state of startups. There are many great stories and interesting nuggets of information sprinkled throughout. I’m still listening so I’ll update this post with my favorites sections but feel free to share your favorite bits in the comments below.

Part One shownotes

Three things that are in the “founder gene”

  1. Ev Williams doesn’t see that failure is a possibility. He’s like one of those free climbers they can climb a mountain without ropes but they never fear the consequences of a fall.
  2. Travis Kalanick (founder of Uber) is an unreasonably fast-moving person. Travis will show you the expansion plan and it makes me nervous.
  3. Kevin Systrom (co-founder of Instagram) is magnetic. Look into his eyes and there’s no doubt he’s going to succeed with his vision for his company.

20 mins into part one, Chris talks about how he dug himself out of a huge financial hole where he was millions in debt.

1 hour in Chris talks about his fund, Lowercase Capital, and how he has nearly $1B under management. His newest investments are in content production companies, a space he’s been watching closely for years and now thinks is ripe for investment. The capital costs of producing content have come down dramatically and you now have high production shows such as This Week in Startups and Leo LaPorte’s This Week in Tech that can be produced at a fraction of the cost of what they used to cost just a few years ago.

Part Two shownotes

Chris managed Google’s $4.7B bid for wireless spectrum. Thanks to their participation, the FCC added the stipulation that the winner of the bid honor open device and open access. Chris reminds us that this is why Verizon LTE iPhones are unlocked.

At 1:50:15 Chris and Jason turn to talk about the sorry state of middle America and how it’s been impacted by politics. Chris refers to a post by Spark Capital VC Bijan Sabet and his post of what it was like to attend a private event with Barak Obama.


Analog to Digital

There is a great interview with Thomas Peterffy on NPR’s Planet Money podcast this week. Mr. Petterffy is credited with bringing computers to Wall Street. In the clip below, he talks about how he cut the cord to his NASDAQ terminal and patched it into the back of a computer so that his trading algorithm could automatically buy & sell shares based on the the numbers it was reading off the feed. NASDAQ noticed the volume of trades coming over the wire from his company, and when they realized that all these trades were being executed by one computer, they pointed to a line in the user agreement that said that all trades needed to be entered, “using the keyboard.”

Peterffy and his engineers then devised a “rubber hand” attached to the computer that got around this absurd rule. The robot entered all trades via the keyboard in order to comply with the rulebook but, as Petterffy notes, on busy trading days the clacking of the robot hand on the keyboard got so loud that people in the office had to wear earplugs.

This story brought back memories of a similar, absurd set of rules that I witnessed at the Osaka stock exchange. The Nikkei future contracts were traded on the Osaka stock exchange and they had a strict set of rules that said that you could only trade these futures if you had a seat on the exchange and had staff in an office within a certain distance of the exchange. This was enforced by a rule similar to the NASDAQ rule that prohibited digital quote feeds from the floor. The only feed you could get was a video feed showing the prices and this feed could only go a certain distance from the Osaka Stock Exchange (OSE). This was, no doubt, a way to force high net worth financial firms to keep an office in Osaka. The problem was, the Morgan Stanleys of the world had a hard time convincing anyone to live in Osaka to work the Futures floor.

I worked for a US Securities firm based in Tokyo at the time and we got around the OSE rule in a clever way, not too unlike Peterffy’s robot hand. We rented a small office across the street from the OSE and installed one of their proprietary video terminals that they give to those with a seat on the exchange. In this office (which was essentially a closet), we put a camera trained on that terminal screen. We then had a computer parse that images from the camera and used software to read the numbers and turn them into digital bits which we then sent to our Tokyo traders via a leased line connection. With this home grown digital ticker feed of the futures contract numbers, our traders could run their trading desk remotely from Tokyo.

The only issue was earthquakes. Whenever there was a strong temblor, someone from the IT department (where I worked) would have to get on a bullet train to Osaka (about 3 hours away) and go to that small office to adjust the camera and re-calibrate the software that parsed the video signal and turned numbers into a digital feed.

The digitization of analog content transforms every business it touches. When you turn a musical performance into an .mp3, a movie into an .avi , or a newspaper into an .html file, it can be duplicated and transported at no cost. We think digitization is a recent phenomena but the interview with Thomas Peterffy reminds us that this transformation hit the financial services first. Shortly after the Peterffy robot, NASDAQ lifted its rule restricting computerized trading and today, more than 50% of all trades are entered automatically via computers running trading algorithms.

The robots are taking over. As we look at events such as the Flash Crash of 2010 and the Knightmare of 2012, we should be taking notes to see how the pursuit of efficiency may impact other industries that are turning to automation.

Tony Conrad on TWIST

I’m an occasional listener to Jason Calacanis’ podcast, This Week in Start Ups. The guests really make the show and this episode from a few weeks back with Tony Conrad, a partner at True Ventures, is killer. Tony didn’t get too much time to talk about his latest product, but he did share a lot about his thinking behind investing, advising, and building product in Silicon Valley.

Great snippets about the early days of WordPress, entrepreneur pitches, and Yuri Milner and his new investment strategy.

Coca-Cola’s Secret Recipe

Could this be Coca-Cola’s secret recipe? NPR’s weekly radio, This American Life, show dusts off an old newspaper article from 1979 which featured the photo scanned below.

On the episode (podcast), Ira Glass works with the folks at Jones Soda and tries to recreate the original recipe which includes things such as coriander and neroli oil. Fast Company has a post by the son of Charles Salter, the Georgia Rambler, who filed the original story and took the photo above for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Secret Coke Recipe on “This American Life?” My Dad Found That.