Thursday, March 23, 2017

A news product I need, between Reddit and Facebook Groups and Wikipedia and Slack

I was on a conference call last night using Bluejeans, and there was quite a bit of confusion about where all the people on the call could find various shared files and comments. There was the Slack group, which confusingly has multiple channels so if you're looking for something you sort of have to check them all and manually scan; there's no way to emphasize the priority of anything, or to post a static file. There's the bluejeans chat for that particular call itself. There is the Google docs, where you have been given access to various docs but there isn't really a place to go to feel you're seeing everything.

I have a long-term thesis that there is a wide need for a product that would unite long-term information and short-term information in one place, that would essentially have transient chat elements like Slack, twitter, yammer, Facebook, Google and Yahoo groups, medium-term curation elements like Reddit and hacker news, and long-term writing and curation elements like Wikipedia. If Wikipedia is the place you go to find out " what's the eternally true back story of X", and Facebook/Google groups are places you go for "what's everything the X group is saying", and reddit is the place you go for "what are some interesting links and comments related to X" this would be the place you go to find out "what's the current deal with X".  Sort of a crowd sourced, moderator-curated Techmeme for any topic or group.


What's the current deal with our school's PTA: when the heck are the meetings, who is even leading it, what's the upcoming event schedule, where is help needed, where's the contact list, where's that permission form again, how can I find that awesome short documentary film one of the school's dads made about the school last year?

What's the current deal with sci-fi movies and TV: what's out in theaters that's good? what has just come out on streaming? what's been available for a while that's hot and much liked? what's the deal with that fake seeming Star Wars preview… was that good? isn't there like an aliens movie in the works or something?  

What's the current deal with the New York mayoral race: are there any Democrats running against de Blasio, are there any prominent Republicans planning to run, even what year does it take place, what are the top issues voters have reported caring about, what's the status of the city's promise to stand up to Trump? 

What's the current deal with the NBA: what are the team rankings and what direction are the teams going, how has boogie cousins shaped up in New Orleans so far, how bad is Durant's injury and what does it mean for the West, who has emerged as a new superstar this year, what are the Vegas odds on teams winning the championship? Are there any good bball podcasts and episodes? wasn't there like a fight the other night? who has clinched playoff berths?

What's the deal with the workshop I just took? Who was in it, where are the slides, what outside resources were mentioned but not explicitly provided?

What's the current deal with Nintendo Switch: the games that are out and their reviews, the sales versus expectations, the best twitch streamers, the most shared videos so far, the articles about it people have shared the most even if they're a week old? 

Right now, if you wanted to be able to know these things at a glance on one page, at a moment's notice, you would have to hire a full-time employee to curate information for you and assemble live pages of it; the way you would need to do that for background information on significant topics before Wikipedia. And yet we have seen again and again that this sort of summarization, categorization and curation work is in ample supply on the Internet.

Now of course, there would have to be enough attracting people to camp out on a page and work on keeping it current. Since a much wider range of topics would be eligible then Wikipedia covers, you can imagine that there would be a significantly smaller amount of curation energy per page. On the other hand, isn't the page on the current status of iOS or the Trailblazers or space exploration or feminism a way, way bigger deal than their Wikipedia pages?

On the other other hand, since these wouldn't be places for original comments chatter, it's hard to see how they could grow a community the way, say, reddit does.

Say I want to see what's going on with the Trump-Russia stuff. Where do I look? None of these seem to be giving me what I want:

"Hey, Reddit, what's up with the Trump-Russia stuff?"

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"Hey, FB, what's up with the Trump-Russia stuff?"

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"Hey, Google, what's up with the Trump-Russia stuff?"

This is the best result currently, though it's very "latest story"-focused, rather than "what's the current status"-focused. I'd like to see poll numbers here, pullquotes from prominent players, capsule bios, etc. Note that none of the results are static pages devoted to the core topic.

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...Google News is essentially the same as regular Google search, but even more overwhelming. Get me an intern!

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NYTimes results are particularly poor. Don't they have some kind of explainer they could point us to?

…and first result, an op/ed by a not very trustworthy person, with little info made prominent:

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One more topic: the "Sully" miracle on the hudson landing.

Wikipedia example:

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From my panel proposal for the 2017 NYC Games For Change festival:


Educational games, edutainment and office tools have formed the bulk of schoolchildren's exposure to computers in the classroom. But what about creative expression? We'll hear from teachers and technologists about the approaches, tools and curricula they're using to unleash broad expression, and share examples of the expressive work students are creating when they are released from digital constraints.


The number one question I get from teachers when discussing my work is, what tools can they use in their classroom today that students will engage with enthusiastically?

Some of the most popular digital classroom tools, such as websites that introduce brief coding problems or digital robot toys, are unquestionably compelling and engaging, but also greatly limit the role of the student as a producer of creative work.

When students are faced with the sort of blank page typical in art class, their creativity flowers broadly, and they explore unexpected areas of their interests and discover new creative passions.

But for teachers, technologists and parents, this sort of green field creative format can be daunting and uncertain, and can require greater preparatory knowledge and research.

Key questions:

How are teachers finding out about these approaches and tools? Are they working in classrooms? What kind of work are students creating? How can that work be assessed? What are the pedagogical theories and evidence that support a creative and expressive approach to exploring technology in the classroom?


We'll share stories from the front, examples of student work, projects and units which succeeded beyond our wildest dreams and ones that crashed and burned in the face of the realities of student engagement and assessment. Attendees, whether educators, technologists, students, parents, or just interested parties, will walk away with a deeper understanding of how student creativity is being engaged and unleashed by expressive digital tools, and how to use that knowledge immediately in their own work.

Presentation experience:

I have taught in numerous capacities over the past decade, both as a college instructor, an elementary subject teacher, and a private teacher of groups of children age 4-12. I was also a conference organizer and host for the presidential administration of the nation of Georgia in 2005-6, and a regular speech giver in an NYC chapter of Toastmasters. I recently conducted a 5-day workshop for New York public school teachers through the NYC DoE's CS4All program.

My panelists would be drawn from seasoned classroom teachers, established educational programs such as ScriptEd, Startup Institute and Code/Interactive, and veterans of the educational software industry with speaking experience.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Android podcast apps reviewed

I'm finally giving up on Pocket Casts (after a good 300+ hours of listening), for reasons I've listed before.

The Android podcasting app landscape is badly lagging behind the iPhone, with its stars like Castro and Overcast (which I have plenty of complaints about). So I downloaded the first dozen or so apps that turn up in a search for "podcast" in the Google Play store.

A winner is you, Player FM:

My full research summary is in a Google Sheet.

As just one example of Player FM's design quality, consider the placement of the episode timeline at the bottom of this screen:

Note how the timeline doesn't go all the way from the left to the right. Why? So that you don't erroneously swipe the entire screen right, meaning to scrobble the episode forward from the start.

This may seem like a meaningless detail, but it was a frequent enough problem for me with PocketCasts that I emailed and tweeted to their team about it. There's no reason why one team can do it and another can't; and it's really a mistake not to have this feature, because overlapping and ambiguous touch regions suck!

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Thursday, March 09, 2017

The despicable William Buckley

I never saw William Buckley's Firing Line, but I just watched a 1969 debate (part 1, part 2) between Buckley and Noam Chomsky.

I've moved away from Chomsky's positions and towards Buckley's a bit over the years, and I'm sympathetic to Buckley's overall argument, but I'm shocked at the patent dishonesty and bad faith he shows throughout this debate, and many others.

Buckley's craven toolbag includes pretending that points are irrelevant:

CHOMSKY: I'm far more opposed... to the imposition of regimes by foreign troops. Now in the case of Germany, let's say, in the case of France, the, uh, the Petain government, the Vichy government, was supported by German troops. Had the German... they weren't throughout the country, necessarily, there certainly was indigenous support, but there's no question that if German military force had been withdrawn to the other side of the Rhine, uh, then there would have been, uh, an overthrow of the Vichy government, and then France would have had some different form of government. Now in that case, our invasion of France, whether one likes it or not, was in reaction to an occupying, external force. It's just pure confusion to identify that with the case of Greece, where we were trying to "liberate", uh, we were trying to select the kind of society that Greece would have, and we were trying to save the rulers we had designated as appropriate from the population. There was no outside force there.

BUCKLEY: But don't you realize that, uh, in your book, uh... that's where, you're not willing to be, to be consistent when carrying out this argument. You, you're constantly talking about our "sattellizing" of places like, uh, uh Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, so on so forth, and yet we never occupied them... ?

CHOMSKY: Oh, but we did...

BUCKLEY: But that is what you talk about...

CHOMSKY: We never occupied the Dominican Republic!? We sent 25,000 troops there in 1965.

BUCKLEY: No no, no, I'm talking about... pre-... I'm, I'm talking about...

CHOMSKY: Well, the American Marines were in there dozens of times, and...

BUCKLEY: No, no, I never...

CHOMSKY: And, and,

BUCKLEY: [Chuckling] Well, look, I think you're being evasive, and [smiling] I... I don't think you want to be!

CHOMSKY: Evasive? No, I...

BUCKLEY: Let me ask you this. Is it possible,

CHOMSKY: I'm not being evasive at all....

BUCKLEY: Is it possible...

CHOMSKY: ...we just simply repeatedly sent troops to Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Cuba, etc., etc.

BUCKLEY: Is it possible...

CHOMSKY: [Gives a resigned nod of defeat]

BUCKLEY: Is it possible... to "satellize" a nation without having an occupying army there?

CHOMSKY: Yes it is.

BUCKLEY: Alright, then there goes your French... your [snickering] tedious French explanation back there.

CHOMSKY: Oh, not at all, because that doesn't happen to be... you see we're talking about a real situation.

BUCKLEY: Yuh, yuh.

CHOMSKY: We could talk about some ideal situation, and have an academic discussion...

BUCKLEY: Yuh, yuh, [Scoffing] I know... therefore, it is possible for the real Vietnam, to "sattelize" South Vietnam, presumably, without even--

CHOMSKY: It's, it's logically possible...

BUCKLEY: --uh, occupying it militarily, in any formal sense.

CHOMSKY: Eh, but it didn't happen, though. So there's no point in discussing it.

BUCKLEY: Well, this is an argument considering which which there is, there are... [very slowly shows both sides of his hand] two points of view,

CHOMSKY: Let's discuss it, then.

BUCKLEY: uh, uh, historically... eh,

CHOMSKY: If you're willing to be serious about it, there's more evidence that South Vietnam tried to colonize North Vietnam, than conversely. In fact, South-- [Buckley presumably makes a face] well, look, South Vietnamese commandoes were going... regular military forces were going North, uh, considerably earlier than we even proclaimed that the infiltration began from North to South.

BUCKLEY: They bump into the refugees coming South? [Laughs, audience laughs]

CHOMSKY: The refugees were coming south in 19... uh, were going in both directions, in fact, as early as 1954, '55. And, according, at least according to Bernard Fall, the commandoes, uh, began going North as early as '56, '57... [Buckley smiles, as if to say "get a load of this guy"] The first claimed infiltration from the North was in '59, and that was South Vietnamese coming, so... so, you know, if one wants to talk about, again, the real world, the first motion, the first motion--

BUCKLEY: Yep, the, the trouble is, you, you don't, your difficulty, mister Chomsky, is you, in my judgment, you [always] know where neatly to begin your historical, uh, sequence...

CHOMSKY: Well, you, you chose the point of beginning...

BUCKLEY: Well, the point, the point really is that, uh, if you, if you're starting to say 1959 was a provocation, because it was...

CHOMSKY: It wasn't a provocation! I don't claim that's when the provocation began!

BUCKLEY: ...and I say how about the people who were going North to South... who were talking about the misery caused by Ho Chi Minh, and so on and so forth... [chuckles]

CHOMSKY: Which people are you talking about, I don't know!

BUCKLEY: ...[Chuckles] well, I'm talking about the Vietnamese people, North and South... your remark is neatly captured in, in, in, the remark made recently by Czechoslovakia, that Czechoslovakia is obviously the most neutralist country in the world, since it declines to interfere even its own internal affairs... [laughs, audience laughs]

CHOMSKY: I'm afraid I don't see the relevance, uh...

BUCKLEY: The relevance is very simply [grins] that you start your line of discussion at a moment that is historically useful to you...

CHOMSKY: That's, that's what I'm saying -- you pick the beginning. You pick the beginning.

BUCKLEY: The grand act of the post-war world....

CHOMSKY: [Nods head in lonely recognition of a point won that Buckley will never concede] ...alright.

BUCKLEY: ... is that the communist, communist imperialists, by the use of terrorism, by the deprivation of freedom, have contributed to the continuing bloodshed... and the saddening thing about it is, not only the bloodshed, but that they seem to disposess you of the power of rational observation! [raises eyebrows and smiles]

CHOMSKY: Yuh... may I say something?


CHOMSKY: I think that's about 5% true, and about, or maybe about 10% true. It certainly is true...

BUCKLEY: Why do you give that?

CHOMSKY: May I complete a sentence?


This excerpt hardly does justice to Buckley's tendency to use shifty language, belligerance, and condescension to avoid addressing Chomsky's points.

Here's why I care: What does it mean, I wonder, that the great conservative intellectual is so obfuscating and intellectually dishonest?

I ask that while admitting that Chomsky is sometimes frustrating to me as a debater as well, such as in his email debate with Sam Harris. For instance, Chomsky often uses the rhetorical device "To take an example at random..." and pulls out, in speaking appearance after speaking appearance, the same one example.

Chomsky is wrong that Nort Vietnam was as benign an instance of socialism as, say, Cuba, Catalonia, or later Nicaragua, Venezuela, or (ever so briefly) Chile; not that most of these didn't have their victims. It's alarming how ready Chomsky is to dismiss Soviet and communist oppression as being some kind of myth. But at least he recognizes that there is a kernel of truth to those claims, and that the Stalin and Mao eras were especially oppressive.

It's more alarming to me what an utter lack of curiosity Buckley has for the US's own imperialist history, which he clearly does not know as well as he pretends (though he chuckles knowingly through Chomsky's historical references as if they were on the tip of his tongue as well). Buckley would rather cut Chomsky off with an insult than allow him to describe the US's own dirty laundry. His refusal to concede a point makes dismiss outright the importance of any possible crimes by US troops or our proxies. Chomsky cries Guatemala; Buckley cries Prague. But it's fair to say that at this point Chomsky had probably gone to pains to learn about Prague and that Buckley had gone to none to learn about Guatemala.

What's also remarkable is that Buckley--like his brethren, an enemy of relativism--has no idea what a perfect demonstration of relativism his own thinking is.

Consider an educated, pro-military Russian, who learned in school about the US's imperialist history in the Caribbean, and not about Soviet crimes in Prague. She could well figure out what was happening in Prague if she had wanted to. But why should she? In her eyes, her government might make mistakes, surely, but it was not the evil one.

Buckley's mindset is no more curious or skeptical or honest than this. He has grown no more than this Soviet has; he has stayed in his provincial place in the relativistic landscape, as she has stayed in hers. If there is an objective truth out there, neither of them has turned their back on their provincialism and pursued it. And why should they? After all, Buckley's stated mission, early on was not to seek out truth; it was to put a stop to the madnesss he saw in America's cultural and political revolutions of the 1960s.

I can appreciate Buckley's desire to pin Chomsky with the label of bad faith, because I want to pin Buckley the same. An accusation of bad faith is marvelously clarifying; it recasts an opponent from a reasoned being whose views must be considered in full, into a charlatan whose basic dishonesty renders all his views moot.

At the same time, I do believe there is a fundamental difference between Buckley and Chomsky. Chomsky is not consistent in all his views, though the worst accusation that I had seen from dedicated Chomsky opponents is that he invested his MIT retirement pension account in those same mutual fund-listed corporations whose influence he condemns. And he doesn't do a good job of admitting his past mistakes, such as an overly lenient view of the Soviet Union in the 60s and 70s that he quietly amended to fit the post-1991 consensus on the left that Soviet imperialism really was an awful, oppressive, corrosive thing.

But Chomsky in this speech with Buckley is speaking essentially honestly. He believes what he says; he acquiesces to yes-or-no questions and answers honestly, even when this hurts his case and helps make Buckley's point; he backs up his assertions with facts, at times admits he doesn't know things, and concedes parts of Buckley's arguments.

The two aren't playing the same game; Buckley is clearly smart, and knows he's being shown up at times, but when Chomsky corrects him on the history of the Greek civil war, or on the history of the many invasions borne of the Monroe doctrine, Buckley hastily changes the subject. Buckley also repeatedly demands that Chomsky answer his questions, while refusing to answer Chomsky's biggest ones--including some that Buckley himself set up, not expecting that Chomsky would be willing to back up his statements. An honest discussant would not so frivilously accuse Chomsky of disingenuously cherry-picking his historical dates, only to change the subject when Chomsky invites him to pick them for him.

If Buckley was at all in search of truth here, he might say "I don't have the command of the history off the top of my head as you do, professor, but I think I'll still disagree after consulting my sources." Instead he pretends -- and hopes the audience will too -- that Chomsky hasn't stepped up to the challenge, and uses that classic tactic of obfuscating job interviewees everywhere: the rhetorical bridge. Caught on the defensive? Time to stop playing fair and change the subject.

That Chomsky beats Buckley so handily is ironic since Buckley is so much more right than Chomsky about the essential destructiveness of the North Vietnamese government. Buckley gets mumble-mouthed and allows Chomsky to assert that before hostilities flared up in the late '50s, the South had as many refugees going North than vice versa. I don't know who claimed what numbers at the time, but the Pentagon Papers (released several years after this debate occurred) estimated that one million refugees had fled South, and further scholarship has suggested that many more tried to flee but were stopped by the communist Viet Minh. I will happily admit I don't know the history well at all, but I don't think the intevening decades have been kind to Chomsky's apologist position.

One of the most dangerous people today is the typical middle-class Russian citizen: educated, intelligent, struggling to make ends meet, nationalist, supportive of Vladimir Putin. If Russia wishes to reassert authority over a former client state, and supplies arms and training to kindle a regional conflict in a destabilizing civil war, will this citizen care? Should she care? Should she learn about it, so as to discern whether the government is acting fairly?

The painful truth is that she will learn little about it, she will trust the government to do more or less the right thing, and she will not give it a second thought. Hence Russia has been involved in at least three low-intensity wars in Eastern Europe over the last twenty years, and one high-intensity war in Chechnya, as well as assorted assassinations in foreign countries, some election meddling, and propping up sympathetic dictators like Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, all with the consent of this acquiescent and incurious Russian citizen.

Chomsky is saying, again and again: we Americans are not doing a much better job of being citizens than this Russian citizen is. Buckley never addresses this question -- and by his avoidance, proves it true.

And what about the American counterpart to this citizen? If the future of the world depended on Buckley's intellectual leadership directing her to grow in her citizenship and to assert a moral direction for her country, would we have a prayer?

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Climate change denier doth protest too little

Climate change politics isn't a choice between A) "We're 100% certain we know exactly what's happening and going to happen and why and how much humans are contributing" and B) "We don't really know anything and the jury's still out".

There's also C) "We have many separate sets of evidence that independently confirm the same basic thesis, and even though systems this complex are not completely understood and there's some chance the thesis of human causation could be wrong a lot or a little, the balance has long tipped overwhelmingly towards having enough evidence to act."

Irresponsible shills like Scott Pruitt don't want the public to consider C, so they denounce A over and over. Their refusal to even articulate their disagreement with C shows their lack of confidence that C is false, and their lack of confidence that B is true.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Russia's bizarre apologists

Masha Gessen's latest deflection of the Trump-Russia conspiracy charge is mystifying. (Just as her last two pieces making some of the same points were.)

You don't need to scoff that people are imagining something nefarious. We know the basics, from extensive investigative reporting and leaks:

  • the Kremlin and its oligarchy have invested heavily in Trump for at least a decade, both above and below board;
  • Trump, in that time, has constantly inserted himself into presidential politics;
  • Russia meanwhile has been much more imperialistic and militarily aggressive, invading two neighbors outright, but they have been somewhat limited by the McCain and Obama Russia hawk camps, and it's been costing them billions;
  • even before Trump announced, thousands of Russian propaganda Twitter accounts switched over to promoting Trump;
  • Trump lives in the same building as Russian oligarchic criminals' massive headquarters, which he provides to them, and has been accused credibly with helping Russian oligarchs launder hundreds of millions of dollars;
  • Trump's inner campaign team was filled with the US political world's most pro-Russia operatives and officials;
  • on the same day that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador, Putin announced, uncharacteristically, that he would not react to Obama's sanctions, but wait for the new administration;
  • Flynn, a disgraced nutcase who was paid $40k by Russians tied to the Kremlin to sit next to Putin at a gala to celebrate propaganda network RT, is made National Security Advisor by Trump, but lies about his contact with the Russian government to Pence, the only inner Trump team member who hasn't been part of the inside all along and has no ties to Russia.

In short, even leaving out so much, we know Trump has been working for the Kremlin and its oligarchs, and that he owes much of his prosperity and political life to them. They also clearly expect his election to serve them well, and not because of any policy positions he holds. They are a joint criminal enterprise whose businesses are mutually dependent and entangled.

How on earth is that not bad enough to matter?

I fear that the New York Review of Books, once again, is proving the spinelessness and imperialist apologism of its deeply outdated defense of Russia, just as it has in pieces over the years that warned against intervening against Milosevic and painted Georgia as an oppressor of Russian citizens.

I wrote a letter of complaint to the NYRB about this problem years ago, but was warned by a colleague that there was zero chance they would print it.

The NYRB has a skepticism of anti-Russian rhetoric that dates to the many decades when anti-communism was used by jingoistic American conservatives to profiteer at public expense. They were never communist, but they have long been aligned with the views of pro Russia outlets like the British Helsinki Group. It's a weird international network, with former USSR supporters (not actually really communists themselves) and far-right nationalists working with the non-existent communist but anti-US-imperialist left. Some of it is funded by Russian natural resource cash, some is just along for the ride out of inertia.

Of course American and British cold warriors are very much to blame for eroding all trust that opposition to Russian imperialism is really about human rights and such.

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