What Apps and Services Does Barack Obama Think Young People Use?

A young associate editor at The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer, reflects on how he accidentally met Barack Obama at a local cafe. The takeaway of what the young people use (apps, services) seems to be in constant flux, but based on the subtitle of the piece, it seems “that even Obama knows young people don’t use Facebook anymore”:

Obama sat down at the head of the table. There was a brief photo op at the opposite end of the table. I surreptitiously took a picture to remember what being on the other side of a wall of cameras felt like, but now it seems more remarkable that I can see the president’s undershirt.

He had come to my local cafe to meet with five young people. According to White House background, provided to me after he left, they met to discuss how to get more 18-34 year-olds to sign up for the coverage under the Affordable Care Act. (The law depends on 18-34 year-olds signing up for healthcare.) One of the five was a navigator, someone employed to help families sign up; another helped explain the law at a mall over the holidays.

They talked about health care stuff for the first 20 minutes. The five shared their experiences, and some of them spoke quietly, so I couldn’t hear them that well.

At one point the president said, “Now, this isn’t public yet.” I perked up.

“Thirty percent of somethingsomethingsomething is mumblemumble,” he said.

I didn’t hear. I had failed as a journalist, so I went to the bathroom.

Failure

When I got back, they were talking about music. Circumstantial evidence indicates that, while I was in the bathroom, they talked about Beyoncé. 

The conversation moved on. They talked about cell phones, and Obama mentioned how Malia did not receive one until she was 16. One of the young people pointed out that, unlike most parents, the president could always argue that he’d know where she was.

They segued to talking about social media (I couldn’t hear their exact words).Now, I thought. Now I could do tech journalism.

The president said something—I could not hear all of it—about new social media apps that were for messaging, new apps that only somethingsomething’d for eight seconds.

“Snapchat,” said one of the young people.

The president made a comment about how different apps were now popular. Someone—it might have been the president—said the word “Instagram.” 

I guess that they were talking about the difficulty of doing political outreach on Snapchat or one of this newer, less textual ilk? I’m not sure. Then the president drops this:

“It seems like they don’t use Facebook anymore,” he said.

Facebook is so uncool even the president of the United States knows it.

I’ve been saying this for a while, but I am disliking using Facebook as of the last year or two. I prefer Twitter and Instagram.

The story is worth the click simply for that SnapChat photo at the end.

The Technologies That Read Your Facial Expressions

An interesting, if somewhat disconcerting, overview of the rising technologies/algorithms that can interpret the emotions on your face:

Ever since Darwin, scientists have systematically analyzed facial expressions, finding that many of them are universal. Humans are remarkably consistent in the way their noses wrinkle, say, or their eyebrows move as they experience certain emotions. People can be trained to note tiny changes in facial muscles, learning to distinguish common expressions by studying photographs and video. Now computers can be programmed to make those distinctions, too.

Companies in this field include Affectiva, based in Waltham, Mass., andEmotient, based in San Diego. Affectiva used webcams over two and a half years to accumulate and classify about 1.5 billion emotional reactions from people who gave permission to be recorded as they watched streaming video, said Rana el-Kaliouby, the company’s co-founder and chief science officer. These recordings served as a database to create the company’s face-reading software, which it will offer to mobile software developers starting in mid-January.

Face-reading technology may one day be paired with programs that have complementary ways of recognizing emotion, such as software that analyzes people’s voices, said Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster. If computers reach the point where they can combine facial coding, voice sensing, gesture tracking and gaze tracking, he said, a less stilted way of interacting with machines will ensue.

One book I recommend that is related to this topic is by Joe Navarro, an ex-FBI agent, titled What Every Body is Saying (a guide to speed-reading people, including when they are telling a lie, etc.).

Teenagers are Wrong about Snapchat

I’ve never used SnapChat (for obvious reasons), and today’s column in The Wall Street Journal, Farhood Manjoo explains why the rest of us shouldn’t be bullish about SnapChat’s popularity with the teenagers:

For tech execs, youngsters are the canaries in the gold mine.

That logic follows a widely shared cultural belief: We all tend to assume that young people are on the technological vanguard, that they’ve somehow got an inside scoop on what’s next. If today’s kids are Snapchatting instead of Facebooking, the thinking goes, tomorrow we’ll all be Snapchatting, too, because tech habits, like hairstyles, flow only one way: young to old.

There is only one problem with elevating young people’s tastes this way: Kids are often wrong. There is little evidence to support the idea that the youth have any closer insight on the future than the rest of us do. Sometimes they are first to flock to technologies that turn out to be huge; other times, the young pick products and services that go nowhere. They can even be late adopters, embracing innovations that older people understood first. To butcher another song: The kids could be all wrong.

Spot on, I think. But then again, give it a year or two and see what happens.

On Technology Advancements in the Grocery Store

The Los Angeles Times reports how Ralphs, a grocery store chain, is using technology to speed up checkout times for customers:

Known as QueVision, the system uses hidden infrared cameras with body heat trackers to figure out how many customers are shopping at any given time. Managers use that information to redeploy workers to the cash registers when things get busy.

It’s already paying off. QueVision has trimmed the average time it takes to get to the front of the line to roughly 30 seconds from the national average of four minutes, a Ralphs spokeswoman said.

The checkout system is part of a long-overdue effort by traditional grocery chains to evolve and stay competitive through the use of technology.

I remember reading about this on Tesco’s virtual store:

In 2011, Tesco launched its futuristic Homeplus market at a Seoul subway stop. There’s no food in this virtual grocery store, only interactive walls around the station that display photos of fruit, vegetables, milk and other grocery staples. Using their smartphones, commuters can buy these products by photographing QR codes printed on the images and paying through their phones. Tesco delivers the purchases to customers’ homes the same day.

The article cites something else worth pondering: the grocery store industry is a $518 billion business in the United States.

 

How the Nerds Helped Obama Win the 2012 Election

The 2012 Presidential Election may be three weeks behind us, but I wanted to highlight this excellent piece by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic titled “When The Nerds Go Marching In.” Alexis goes behind the scenes to get the scoop on the top caliber technology team that was behind Obama’s campaign. Led by campaign technology officer Harper Reed,

The team had elite and, for tech, senior talent — by which I mean that most of them were in their 30s — from Twitter, Google, Facebook, Craigslist, Quora, and some of Chicago’s own software companies such as Orbitz and Threadless, where Reed had been CTO. But even these people, maybe *especially* these people, knew enough about technology not to trust it. “I think the Republicans fucked up in the hubris department,” Reed told me. “I know we had the best technology team I’ve ever worked with, but we didn’t know if it would work. I was incredibly confident it would work. I was betting a lot on it. We had time. We had resources. We had done what we thought would work, and it still could have broken. Something could have happened.”

Moreover,

Reed’s team came in as outsiders to the campaign and by most accounts, remained that way. The divisions among the tech, digital, and analytics team never quite got resolved, even if the end product has salved the sore spots that developed over the stressful months. At their worst, in early 2012, the cultural differences between tech and everybody else threatened to derail the whole grand experiment.

By the end, the campaign produced exactly what it should have: a hybrid of the desires of everyone on Obama’s team. They raised hundreds of millions of dollars online, made unprecedented progress in voter targeting, and built everything atop the most stable technical infrastructure of any presidential campaign. To go a step further, I’d even say that this clash of cultures was a good thing: The nerds shook up an ossifying Democratic tech structure and the politicos taught the nerds a thing or two about stress, small-p politics, and the significance of elections.

Above all, Alexis goes behind the scenes to bring the face of the team closer to us, the read. It’s a deeply human story:

If you’re a nerd, Harper Reed is an easy guy to like. He’s brash and funny and smart. He gets you and where you came from. He, too, played with computers when they weren’t cool, and learned to code because he just could not help himself. You could call out nouns, phenomena, and he’d be right there with you: BBS, warez, self-organizing systems, Rails, the quantified self, Singularity. He wrote his first programs at age seven, games that his mom typed into their Apple IIC. He, too, has a memory that all nerds share: Late at night, light from a chunky monitor illuminating his face, fingers flying across a keyboard, he figured something out. 

It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read since the election. Highly, highly recommended.

Alex Payne: Alone, Together, Technology

This is a must-read personal post by Alex Payne, in which he reflects the influence of technology in his life following a divorce with his wife:

I owe my life to technology.

I first realized it in my early twenties. Everything important around me at the time, I’d found on Craigslist: my girlfriend, my job, my apartment. It was a powerful realization: I could sit down with my laptop and, in a matter of hours or days, change my world in both superficial and fundamental ways.

That was years ago. Technology specializes over time. The life I just finished packing up wasn’t courtesy of Craigslist. It wouldn’t be, now. The modern web has six sites for everything, branded and polished and localized and full of options. House from Redfin. Cars negotiated online before ever walking into a dealership. Wife from OkCupid. Wedding invitations by email. Date-night dinners booked on OpenTable. Fast and friction-free.

I spent four years telling anyone who asked how we met that OkCupid’s matching algorithms must have been off. “We were only a seventysomething percent match, with like a twelve percent chance of being enemies. Guess they need to work some bugs out!” The joke’s on me, of course. I emailed the right person at OkCupid to apologize for the years of disparagement.

I could blame technology. Maybe stitching together a durable life takes physical work, needle callouses.

I think this was the second best line in the piece:

Maybe technology made it all too easy to slide into a life I wasn’t meant to have.

And the best:

I will owe the next part of my life to technology, but I will owe it more to experience.

Amen.

Again, a must-read in its entirety.

From Eye to iPad: The Technology Behind Paper

FastCompany has a profile of the iPad app Paper (by FiftyThree) and the technology behind it:

What vaulted FiftyThree over a hot pile of math was a major insight gleaned from two dead German scientists named Paul Kubelka and Franz Munk. In 1931, they published a paper called Ein Beitrag zur Optik der Farbanstriche, or “a contribution to the optics of paints,” which showed that this color-space question predated computing by several decades. The paper laid out a “theory of reflectance” with an equation which could model color blending on the physical experience you have with the naked eye. That is, how light is reflected or absorbed by various colors.

Today, computers store color as three values: one for red, green and blue, also known as RGB channels. But the Kubelka-Munk model had at least six values for each color, including reflection and absorption values for each of the RGB colors. “While the appearance of a color on a screen can be described in three dimensions, the blending of color actually is happening in a six dimensional space,” explains Georg Petschnigg, FiftyThree’s cofounder and CEO. The Kubelka-Munk paper had allowed the team to translate an aesthetic problem into a mathematical framework.

 Moving from a three-dimensional color-space to six dimensions was the difference between old drab color-mixing and absolute realism. “What creates the shades you see between paints is this interplay of absorption and reflection,” says Petschnigg. “Compare red nail polish to red ink: both are red, but the nail polish will be visible on black paper because it reflects light. The ink won’t be, because it absorbs light.”

Paper is one of the most beautiful apps on the iPad. I highly recommend getting it (the basic version is free) if you don’t have it.