Pinterest's user experience has drawn most of the attention, but the data users generate are what's really interesting.
Ben Silbermann (left) being interviewed at SXSW (flickr/pantavila).
Ben Silbermann is quiet, reserved even. When I arrived at GigaOm's Roadmap conference this week, he wasn't in the speakers room BSing with the journalists and entrepeneurs there. Instead, he was sitting quietly backstage watching Om Malik interview Evan Williams under the bright lights on a small monitor. When I asked him how he was doing, he told me about life with his infant. We both watched a clock count down to the moment when we had to go on.
I mention all this because Ben Silbermann doesn't do a ton of public appearances, or even interviews with journalists. Which means when you've got the guy there and willing to answer questions, it's exciting. In the spring, there were dozens of stories about Pinterest. That's dialed back in the past few months (aside from Fast Company's excellent feature), but Pinterest just keeps growing and growing.
By now, most people are familiar with the company's mechanic. You can decompose any web page into its constituent images and pin them to one of your "boards." That's the user side of the experience and it's very, very slick. Silbermann contends that Pinterest's core value is that it lets users plan their futures, unlike Facebook (organizing your past) or Twitter (narrating your present). That's how he sees his product fitting into people's lives, he told me.
I opened the interview with perhaps too much of a focus on the demographics of Pinterest. You have almost certainly heard that Pinterest has more female users than male ones. But it's also more Midwestern than your average young web product. I'm not interested in these facts per se, but I would like to know how and why the network developed. Was there something to the core mechanic that disproportionately appealed to women? Or did they just happen to populate their beta network with a lot of Midwestern women and from that seed sprung this whole interesting tree? Silbermann told me he thought it was a little of both.
The question I was saving up, though, didn't have anything to do with the user experience of Pinterest. All the time I've spent reporting on how companies like Google and Nokia build maps had convinced me that building tools that allow you to structure vast amounts of human knowledge into a machine-readable format is an amazing way to create value. This is what librarians do. And this is what Google Translate does. And it's what the people who make the map software on your phone did. The machines are amazing at using the data, but we're the ones who are good at parsing the logic of the human world.
One of the big tasks in artificial intelligence, for example, is labeling photographs. Both Microsoft and Google have built cutting-edge (and huge!) neural nets that can identify cats in YouTube videos, for example. They are getting better all the time and there have been several step changes in how good they are over the last five years.
But could the big machines separate cats into cute cats and silly cats, or recognize a picture of cross-species animal friends? Not really. And this is something that humans can do effortlessly. We impose categories on things because that is how humans work. And another name for a Pinterest board is a category.
So, if you take this perspective, Pinterest becomes something wholly different. It's a fun game to get users to embed their knowledge about the objects and logic of the human world into a database of photographs.
That's what I really wanted to ask Silbermann about. What's he gonna do with all that beautifully, humanly organized data?
And right as I was winding up to that question, working our way towards it, a fire alarm rang. At first, I told people to hang out in their seats for a few seconds, hoping that it'd switch off immediately. But the clanging went on. And soon, Silbermann and I were making our way down the back stairs and out into the unusually warm night. He had a meeting back down in Palo Alto. I hopped in an Uber car and rode back to BART pinning the images from my day to mental boards: missed opportunities, humans vs. machines, San Francisco summer in November, fire alarms.
The tech-industry veteran Linda Stone on how to pay attention
A longtime tech executive, Linda Stone worked on emerging technologies at Apple and then Microsoft Research in the 1980s and ’90s. Fifteen years ago, she coined the term continuous partial attention to describe the modern predicament of being constantly attuned to everything without fully concentrating on anything. Since then, she has frequently written and lectured about the challenges of living in an always-on, hyperconnected world.
James Fallows: You’re well known for the idea of continuous partial attention. Why is this a bad thing?
Linda Stone: Continuous partial attention is neither good nor bad. We need different attention strategies in different contexts. The way you use your attention when you’re writing a story may vary from the way you use your attention when you’re driving a car, serving a meal to dinner guests, making love, or riding a bicycle. The important thing for us as humans is to have the capacity to tap the attention strategy that will best serve us in any given moment.
Marijuana users had smaller waists and scored higher across several measures of blood sugar regulation.
"Marijuana use is associated with an acute increase in caloric intake," goes the clinical jargon for popular lore. Still despite eating more while high (by some measures, over 600 extra calories per day), marijuana users' extra intake doesn't seem to be reflected in increased
BMI. Indeed, studies have identified a reduced prevalence of obesity in the pot smoking community.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska, the Harvard School of Public Health, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center analyzed data from a
nationally representative sample of over 4,600 adults. About 12 percent of the participants self-identified as current marijuana users, and
another 42 percent reported having used the drug in the past. The participants were tested for various measures of blood sugar control: their fasting
insulin and glucose levels; insulin resistance; cholesterol levels; and waist circumference.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Martin O'Malley jumped into the race for the Democratic nomination on Saturday, giving Hillary Clinton another challenger.
For months, it looked like Martin O’Malley might be the only person brave enough to challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination. Between her dominance and the Clintons’ legendarily long memory for slights, she seemed to have convinced most potential rivals not to bother.
But the Democratic field that the former Maryland governor joined on Saturday doesn’t look quite like what was expected. Yes, Clinton still has a comfortable lead over all rivals. But the rest of the ballot is more crowded. Jim Webb seems set to run. Lincoln Chafee is slated to announce a run on June 3. Most of all, Senator Bernie Sanders has become an unexpected force in the race.
The Sanders ascendancy is a challenge for O’Malley, who seemed to be aiming for the territory to Clinton’s left; O’Malley has criticized the former secretary of state over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Another challenge is the recent unrest in Baltimore. Critics charge that data-based policing tactics that O’Malley ushered in as mayor helped create the tension between police and citizens that boiled over after the death of Freddie Gray. By announcing his campaign in Baltimore, O’Malley signaled that he intends to take that criticism on head-on. In statements since rioting and protests, he has suggested that such tensions are in fact exactly why he feels compelled to run.
We're all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.
In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?”he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.
This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”
Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”
Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life. We've grown more adept at shaping these underground shelters and passages over the millennia, and today we dig for hundreds of reasons. We excavate to find both literal and cultural treasures, digging mines and unearthing archaeological discoveries. We use caverns for stable storage, for entertainment, and for an effective shelter from natural and man-made disasters. And as the planet's surface becomes ever more crowded, and national borders are closed, tunnels provide pathways for our vehicles and for smugglers of every kind. Collected below are more recent subterranean scenes from around the world.
A new report estimates that 8,000 students from China were expelled in the 2013-4 school year. That’s bad news for U.S. schools.
A startling number of Chinese students are getting kicked out of American colleges. According to a white paper published by WholeRen, a Pittsburgh-based consultancy, an estimated 8,000 students from China were expelled from universities and colleges across the United States in 2013-4. The vast majority of these students—around 80 percent—were removed due to cheating or failing their classes.
As long as universities have existed, students have found a way to get expelled from them. But the prevalence of expulsions of Chinese students should be a source of alarm for American university administrators. According to the Institute of International Education, 274,439 students from China attended school in the United States in 2013-4, a 16 percent jump from the year before. Chinese students represent 31 percent of all international students in the country and contributed an estimated $22 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014.
The plight of non-tenured professors is widely known, but what about the impact they have on the students they’re hired to instruct?
Imagine meeting your English professor by the trunk of her car for office hours, where she doles out information like a taco vendor in a food truck. Or getting an e-mail error message when you write your former biology professor asking for a recommendation because she is no longer employed at the same college. Or attending an afternoon lecture in which your anthropology professor seems a little distracted because he doesn’t have enough money for bus fare. This is an increasingly widespread reality of college education.
Many students—and parents who foot the bills—may assume that all college professors are adequately compensated professionals with a distinct arrangement in which they have a job for life. In actuality those are just tenured professors, who represent less than a quarter of all college faculty. Odds are that students will be taught by professors with less job security and lower pay than those tenured employees, which research shows results in diminished services for students.