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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Pinterest to pave Instapaper paradise and put up a parking lot

It's kind of a sad parallel to the incentives and economic realities that make your favorite local boutique or art shop get replaced by a Bank of America branch.

Not only is it hard to compete for space/talent with their money, they are additionally incentivized to aggressively expand because it's defense against good people/locations going to competing firms.

We like to fantasize that the basic currency of power in silicon valley is meaningful user delight, when it's really just a narrow kind of user attention hack...

...the kind that cheaply and emptily occupies Facebook and funds billionaires' pseudo-noble vanity quests against the same purveyors of cheap clickbait that make them their money in the first place.

Instapaper can't spam my attention like Pinterest can, so it and all your Pinterest joy are living in borrowed time.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Resources for learning tvOS

I'm learning some of Apple's tvOS (for developing AppleTV apps), and so far these are the introductory resources I have found most helpful:

Tobias Conradi (@toco91)'s intro slides:

Davis Allie’s quick intro on tutsplus, including a simple first app:

Greg Mojica’s quick intro on appcoda, more data-focused and extensive than Allie’s:

Mark Price’s Devslopes Apple TV Tutorial:

In-depth tutorial:

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Books I have given as gifts

There's a great Hacker News thread on what book you've given most as a gift.

Thinking of what I've given as a gift is easier, and less fraught with worries about what it says about me, than answering about my favorite books, period.

It's pretty incredible that in the nearly infinite universe of books, I keep hearing some of the same ones recommended comma such as The Easy way to stop smoking, William Zinsser's On Writing Well, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Ayn Rand, Bill Bryson. (not that I personally know and love all these.)

It gives me hope that there's a chance for quality to provide the engine of virality! Although it helps spread a book if the book subtly serves the reader's ego, like I accuse Michael Lewis of doing...

Here's my list:

For adults:

  • What Uncle Sam Really Wants by Noam Chomsky -- haven't read this forever, but I gave away dozens of copies in college... concise and effective introduction to the leftist critique of American foreign policy, which I think has proved right in its predictions since being published, even if I think Chomsky is a sloppy political thinker
  • Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock - mystery told in the form of other people's delightfully intricate mail that you read
  • Advice to a Young Wife from an Old Mistress, by Michael Drury -- real life observations on romance and life
  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud - incredible journey into how our minds see comics and make them into story and shared mental experience, way more fun than it sounds.
  • Ghost World by Daniel Clowes - great graphic novel to introduce a widely read adult to what comics can be outside of superheroes; very intellectual
  • Black Hole by Charles Burns (graphic novel) -- can't keep this on my shelf, it leaps into people's arms. Dark twisted coming of age parable.

For kids, age 5-105:

  • The Boy Who Reversed Himself by William Sleator- great kids' sci-fi that takes the ideas of Flatland and applies them to the 4th dimension.
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar-- kind of like Borges for kids
  • Bone vol. 1: out of Boneville by Jeff Smith - silly and irresistible fantasy comic by a master cartoonist
  • Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hanke - great kids' sci-fi graphic novel romp, with a strong girl at the center.

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Monday, August 08, 2016

The pedagogical power of fantasy

Deena Skolnick Weisberg writes up some interesting research that (provisionally) suggests that children learn certain kinds of information better from fantasy writing than realism:

A different, and richer, possibility is that there’s something about fantastical contexts that is particularly helpful for learning. From this perspective, fantastical fiction might do something more than hold children’s interest better than realistic fiction. Rather, immersion in a scenario where they need to think about impossible events might engage children’s deeper processing, precisely because they can’t treat these scenarios as they would every other scenario that they encounter in reality.

They must consider every event with fresh eyes, asking whether it fits with the world of the story and whether it could fit within the laws of reality. This constant need to evaluate a story might make these situations particularly ripe for learning.

My hypothesis is that we are creatures of story. Story can take control more clearly when unmoored from all the constraints of our specific reality. But it can't go too far.

"She was obsessed with getting through the asteroid belt faster" focuses me on the story more than "She was obsessed with getting through the car wash faster", but also more than an obscure sentence like "She was obsessed with getting through the Andromeda Nexus in fewer light years".

The right amount of novelty seems to help. And the novel scenarios of sci-fi can mean that every detail alludes to so much background story. Everything is new, except the background associations and history we bring to the story. So there is a mutually reinforcing power to the figure and the ground, to borrow a phrasing from Gestalt psychology.

In Star Wars, Luke gasps "You know about the rebellion against the empire!?", and we know that it's kept hush-hush, that he sympathizes with it, and that it strikes him as daring in contrast to his mundane agricultural existence. We are bringing an immense amount of knowledge to that line, but it is able to cast a shadow without being encumbered by our knowledge.

Adding to that, since the scenarios are concocted from whole cloth, they can use bolder stitching. The galaxy can be in a rebellion that has a murky religious battle underneath... the stakes can be so high.

I recently reread CS Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to my daughter. It opens with a conservative takedown of what was then considered progressive education. Eustace, a schoolboy at such a school, is a jerk who only reads about real things--grain silo capacities and such--and is taught to look down on fantasy. Meanwhile, of course, the whole series is an argument for the power of fantasy to communicate about Jesus better than the church does.

From the last chapter of Dawn Treader:

"Dearest," said Aslan very gently, "you and your brother will never come back to Narnia."

"Oh, Aslan!!" said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

"You are too old, children," said Aslan, "and you must begin to come close to your own world now."

"It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It's OK. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"

"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.

"Are—are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.

"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."

It is a powerful argument for illumination through fantasy.

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Friday, August 05, 2016

One of these days, someone's going to cook up a use for Bitcoin

This William Mougayar talk about Bitcoin and the blockchain left me stumped.

He's clearly smart, but there's something I'm not getting. He keeps saying "the blockchain's potential is not about payments." But many of his prime examples (including one he's investing in!) are using blockchain for payments, and nothing else.

Don't get me wrong, the blockchain does seem useful for payments, due to the low chance of fraud. Checks can be stolen and forged, credit cards can be falsely charged. But as he emphasizes, the current system is basically working fine; overall fraud and fees are low enough that competition is hard and there is little incentive to start using cryptocurrencies instead.

I got the sense that he was dancing around a dearth of specific ideas, and just assuming that something amazing must be buildable on this.

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