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 president addressed the quadrennial gathering like a campaign rally—talking to a group devoted to service as if it valued self interest.
Donald Trump continued his ongoing tour of cherished American institutions on Monday night, delivering yet another jarringly partisan speech to an apolitical audience—this one, comprised of tens of thousands still too young to vote.
During the campaign, his performance at the Al Smith dinner—where presidential candidates roast their rivals and themselves every four years—devolved into overt attacks on his opponent. Shortly after his election, he stunned CIA employees by delivering a campaign-style stump speech before the agency’s Memorial Wall. On Saturday, he surprised the crowd of uniformed personnel at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford by imploring them to lobby Congress in support of his agenda.
The internet’s favorite fact-checkers are caught in a messy dispute.
On Monday, the editorial staff of Snopes.com wrote a short plea for help. The post said that the site needed money to fund its operations because another company that Snopes had contracted with “continues to essentially hold the Snopes.com web site hostage.”
“Our legal team is fighting hard for us, but, having been cut off from all revenue, we are facing the prospect of having no financial means to continue operating the site and paying our staff (not to mention covering our legal fees) in the meanwhile,” the note continued.
It was a shocking message from a website that’s been around for more than 20 years—and that’s become a vital part of internet infrastructure in the #fakenews era. The site’s readers have responded. Already, more than $92,000 has been donated to a GoFundMe with a goal of $500,000.
There were numerous attempts to establish contact with the campaign and the transition team.
In trying to fend off suspicion of collusion with the Kremlin, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner have recently provided the public with two very interesting documents. Shoving responsibility for any outreach onto the Russian side, the two men have given us with a partial account of Russian methods in approaching the Trump camp in 2016.
If the accounts are true—and, given that their accounts have changed in the past, these latest accounts could change too—then, taken together, the Trump Jr. emails and Kushner’s statement show a Russian side that is experimenting with ways of getting the Trump team’s attention. They show a side that really is, as one former Obama administration official told me, “throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what would stick.”
Half a century ago, a senator battling a brain tumor took to the Senate floor, and secured his legacy.
None of us can choose how we are remembered. Most of us are not remembered at all. Senator John McCain knows that he will be remembered. He faces a choice about how his remarkable career will be noted in its autumnal phase.
McCain will of course be remembered most of all for his service, and sacrifice and bravery, as a naval aviator and then as prisoner of war in Vietnam. He should also be known for his efforts in his early days in politics to heal divisions within the United States over the Vietnam war, and then between Vietnam and the United States.
In the world of politics he is known and will probably be remembered as a steadfast personal friend, despite disagreements of party. Michael Lewis’s remarkable tale of McCain’s loyalty to the disabled and mostly forgotten one-time liberal champion Morris Udall is, well, an unforgettable example. More than most politicians, McCain has had dramatic moments of principle-above-party high-road stands, as when he told a Republican questioner that she should stop suggesting that his then-opponent for the presidency, Barack Obama, was “an Arab.” As Colin Powell later pointed out, McCain’s response fell an inch short of perfection, in that he answered the questioner by saying that Obama wasn’t “an Arab—he’s a decent family man.” Still, in real time and near the end of a bitter campaign it was brave, right, to his credit—and in character.
Thirty-one-year-old Ezra Cohen-Watnick holds the intelligence portfolio on the National Security Council—but almost everything about him is a mystery.
Just 24 days into his tenure as Donald Trump’s national-security adviser, Michael Flynn was forced to resign, having reportedly misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials. When Flynn departed, the men and women he’d appointed to the National Security Council grew nervous about their own jobs, and with good reason. The new national-security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, promptly began clearing out Flynn’s people, among them Dave Cattler, the deputy assistant to the president for regional affairs, Adam Lovinger, a strategic affairs analyst on loan from the Pentagon, and KT McFarland, Flynn’s deputy, who was eased out with the ambassadorship to Singapore. Even Steve Bannon, among the most powerful people in the White House, was removed from the meetings of the NSC Principal’s Committee, where he had been installed early on in the administration.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Stormborn,” the second episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
The rise in anti-Muslim violence under Modi suggests that the demons of the country’s past are very much alive.
One day in June, towards the end of Ramadan, two young Muslim brothers on a visit to Delhi to buy new clothes for Eid boarded a train to return home, three hours away. Soon, they became embroiled in a disagreement over seating with fellow passengers, which escalated into an argument over their religion. The other passengers taunted the boys, calling them “beef-eaters,” and pulling at their beards, one of the brothers later said. Eventually, the knives came out. By the time the train had passed the boys’ village, the assault was underway. Fifteen-year-old Junaid Khan was thrown out of the carriage one station past the boys’ stop; he had been stabbed multiple times, and was later declared dead at Civil Hospital in Palwal.
Terminating the special counsel would show recklessness, imply corruption, and irrevocably damage the country.
Last week, President Donald Trump fueled speculation that he might work to oust Robert Mueller, the former FBI director appointed to probe Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Trump could do so today, or tomorrow, or three months from now; the news could be announced in a televised speech, through a spokesperson, or even in a late night tweet sent on an impulse after his advisers have gone to bed.
If Trump fires Robert Mueller, few will be surprised. But if that happens, as the Department of Justice is thrown into chaos, as the American public sees its clearly expressed support for the special counsel disregarded, as the vital inquiry into the integrity of American elections stalls, as protesters take to the streets in a show of outrage at the affront to the rule of law, as the 2018 midterms morph into a referendum on the administration, and as American democracy reels into unknown territory, the House of Representatives should immediately impeach the president.
As Donald Trump’s troubles deepen, he keeps trying to shift attention to his old rival—but finds it no longer works like it used to.
Donald Trump’s brand-new communications director got a glimpse of the challenge he faces this weekend. As Anthony Scaramucci toured the Sunday shows, promising a new era of better relations and positive vibes, his boss was firing off his most active string of Twitter complaints in some time, taking shots at Democrats, Republicans, the press, James Comey, Robert Mueller, and—for the second time in less than a week—his own attorney general:
So why aren't the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?
The president’s choice of words to describe Attorney General Jeff Sessions is bizarre, though the condescending mockery matches the tone he often uses for adversaries. To paraphrase Trump, somebody’s doing the beleaguering, and that person is Trump himself, who railed at Sessions during an interview with The New York Times last week, saying he wished he hadn’t appointed him, and that Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation was unfair to Trump.
Partly, it’s simple rage. Mueller threatens Trump. And when Trump sees someone as a threat, he tries to discredit and destroy them—conventional norms of propriety, decency and legality be damned.
But there’s another, more calculated, reason. Trump and his advisors may genuinely believe that firing Mueller is a smart move. And if you put morality aside, and see the question in nakedly political terms, they may be right.
The chances that Mueller will uncover something damning seem very high. Trump has already admitted to firing former FBI Director James Comey over the Russia investigation. Donald Trump Jr. has already admitted to welcoming the opportunity to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from people he believed were representatives of the Russian government. Even if Mueller doesn’t accuse anyone of a crime, he’s likely to paint a brutal picture. And that’s just on the question of election collusion and obstruction of justice. If Mueller uses Russia to segue into Trump’s business dealings, who knows what he might find. An all-star team of legal and financial sleuths, with unlimited time and money, and the ability to subpoena documents and people, have been let loose on the affairs of a man whose own autobiographer called him a “sociopath.” No wonder Trump is scared.