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.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
The president is making a late push to win funding for his border wall in a must-pass spending bill. But it’s not clear how badly he—or Republicans—want to fight.
If President Trump wants to shut down the federal government over funding for his southern border wall, Democrats seem happy to oblige him.
Four days before a deadline for Congress to pass a spending bill, thebig question is just how much Trump wants to have the fight his administration has begun to wage over the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have been negotiating for weeks on legislation to avert a shutdown on April 29 and fund the government for the remaining five months of the fiscal year. Officials in both parties have characterized the talks positively: Neither side wants a shutdown, and they have largely reached agreement on the critical issues of how much money to appropriate to each department and agency.
The Hulu show has created a world that’s visually and psychologically unlike anything in film or television.
Call it luck, call it fate, call it the world’s most ridiculous viral marketing campaign, but the first television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is debuting on Wednesday to audiences who are hyper-ready for it. The 1985 speculative fiction work by Margaret Atwood has featured on library waitlists and Amazon’s top 20 for months now—partly in anticipation of the new Hulu show, and partly in response to the strange new landscape that emerged after November 9, wherein women in the millions felt compelled to take to the streets to assert their attachment to reproductive freedom. (When the release date for The Handmaid’s Tale was announced in December, people joked that it would likely be a documentary by the time it arrived on TV screens.)
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
Film, television, and literature all tell them better. So why are games still obsessed with narrative?
A longstanding dream: Video games will evolve into interactive stories, like the ones that play out fictionally on the Star Trek Holodeck. In this hypothetical future, players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot. It would be like living in a novel, where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.
It’s an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones. One shortcut is an approach called environmental storytelling. Environmental stories invite players to discover and reconstruct a fixed story from the environment itself. Think of it as the novel wresting the real-time, first-person, 3-D graphics engine from the hands of the shooter game. In Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight, for example, dioramas summarize the plot and setting of the film. In the 2007 game BioShock, recorded messages in an elaborate, Art Deco environment provide context for a story of a utopia’s fall. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, a new game about a girl piecing together a family curse, narration is accomplished through artifacts discovered in an old house.
An interview with the Associated Press shows President Trump slowly coming to terms with the size of the government he now runs, and the challenges he must tackle.
Every president faces a steep learning curve when he enters the presidency. There is, as John F. Kennedy, wrote, no school for commanders in chief. Yet even by that standard, recent interviews show a Donald Trump who is genuinely surprised by the size of his duties, the interests he must balance, and the methods required to get that done.
On Sunday, the Associated Press released a transcript of an interview with the president last week. It deserves to be read in full: It captures his constant evasiveness on facts, preferring hyperbole, for example, and his detachment from reality—when asked about a “contract with the American voter” on what he’d achieve in 100 days, Trump dismisses it, saying, “Somebody put out the concept of a hundred-day plan.”
In the middle of an economic recovery, hundreds of shops and malls are shuttering. The reasons why go far beyond Amazon.
From rural strip-malls to Manhattan’s avenues, it has been a disastrous two years for retail.
There have been nine retail bankruptcies in 2017—as many as all of 2016. J.C. Penney, RadioShack, Macy’s, and Sears have each announced more than 100 store closures. Sports Authority has liquidated, and Payless has filed for bankruptcy. Last week, several apparel companies’ stocks hit new multi-year lows, including Lululemon, Urban Outfitters, and American Eagle, and Ralph Lauren announced that it is closing its flagship Polo store on Fifth Avenue, one of several brands to abandon that iconic thoroughfare.
A deep recession might explain an extinction-level event for large retailers. But GDP has been growing for eight straight years, gas prices are low, unemployment is under 5 percent, and the last 18 months have been quietly excellent years for wage growth, particularly for middle- and lower-income Americans.
Critics accuse federal judges of too easily trusting law enforcement in cases involving excessive force. This week, the Supreme Court declined its chance to echo—or dismiss—that allegation.
On a mild Friday evening in late October 2010, Ricardo Salazar-Limon was in his white Toyota pickup truck, driving west along Houston, Texas’s Southwest Freeway. After a long day painting and hanging sheetrock at NASA’s Johnson Space Center he stopped off at the modest gray rancher he shared with his young family and his friend Rogelio. The two men commiserated over a couple beers before setting out for the home of an acquaintance across town. On the way, they picked up a 12-pack of Bud Light and two of Rogelio’s friends. Salazar-Limon, who was 25 at the time, would recall it as “a common day, like any other.”
That is, until a siren and red-and-blue lights erupted behind Salazar-Limon’s truck just after midnight. He knew he had been speeding, and he eased onto the shoulder, pulling up alongside the scuffed Jersey barrier that marked the edge of a freeway overpass. Chris Thompson, a patrol officer with the Houston Police Department, parked his police cruiser behind the truck.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
The media should stop working so hard to make things so easy for anyone with the last name Bush, Clinton, and inevitably, Trump.
Whether one likes or dislikes Chelsea Clinton is beside the point.
Imagine paging through an official handbook at The New York Times or NPR or Columbia University’s journalism school and encountering an entry with these guidelines:
Prospective political candidates: A subject may sometimes warrant coverage as a possible or likely political candidate before he or she officially declares an intention to seek office or files paperwork to formally initiate a run. Such coverage should be reserved for the unusually rich, the widely famous, or the close relative of a person widely known to have held elective office.
There is not a reputable news organization in America that would formalize that guideline. Yet it might as well be the official standard in the political press, where all manner of coverage flows to nascent careers because the subject is a billionaire, like Ross Perot, or famous, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or kin to a Kennedy or Bush.