Ted Chiang interviewed by Ezra Klein

It’s rare that I’ll read a 7,500-word interview or essay. This is why I don’t subscribe to The New Yorker. But recently I read the transcript of this Ezra Klein interview of Ted Chiang from last year, and I was riveted. Chiang is a brilliant writer of short-form science fiction. The interview just touches on so many fascinating topics, each given a thoughtful and unique treatment by Chiang: science vs. religion, sci-fi vs. fantasy, artificial intelligence, and more. I highly recommend listening to it or reading the transcript.

Rules? Why do I have to follow rules?

Right now, on a local Facebook group (and presumably on Facebook groups around the country), a “conversation” is happening that looks something like this:

“OMG, the school committee is silencing its critics!”

“What do you mean?”

“They won’t allow people to show up at meetings and speak their minds on any random topic.”

“So, like, they plan and follow an agenda?”

“Yes! So if I want to rant on some other topic, I can’t do it.”

“Don’t you do it all the time on Facebook?”

“Yes, but they won’t let me derail the school committee meeting.”


“And, get this: They end the Monday meetings at 9:30pm. They won’t stay all night to debate unless they decide a topic is really urgent and has to get resolved.”

“So they want to get home to their families and get some sleep before doing their jobs the next day?”

“Yes, but what if I want to say something and it’s after 9:30?”


I really don’t know how elected officials do it.

I’m done with Lifehacker

I’ve been reading Lifehacker, the “do everything better” blog, for 15 years or more. It was one of the first subscriptions I added to Google Reader, and it has been a regular staple of my daily procrastination reading ever since. Over the years, Lifehacker has taught me productivity tips, cooking hacks, time savers, and various other little life lessons.

And now I’m done with it.

Gina Trapani’s original vision for Lifehacker was to help readers become more productive. It seems the current goal is to cause readers to repeatedly bang their heads against their desks and question their life(hacker) choices.

By way of example, here are a few of their recent articles:

  • 10 ways to show you ads while you click through an annoying slideshow
  • You’ve been breathing wrong the whole time
  • 32 things you can do with a coffee filter (but never will, because you’ll forget the list ten seconds after you read it)
  • How to do something unethical and get away with it
  • Make Lifehacker money by buying “the best coffee maker” through affiliate links
  • The best science-based methods for relieving pain (that aren’t actually science-based like, you know, medication)
  • How to stop malware according to a 22-year-old journalist who knows nothing about cybersecurity and didn’t interview any experts

Okay, so those aren’t real Lifehacker headlines, but they may as well be. Look, I understand the need for the site’s corporate overlords to make money. And, in with the sand there are a few pearls, like the glorious gourmand Claire Lower and the trusty trainer Beth Skwarecki. It’s why I’ve put up over the years with link-bait headlines, annoying ads, and even auto-play videos. But, overall, things have gotten so bad that finding a genuinely useful article on Lifehacker is as rare as finding a compassionate soul at a Trump rally.

Unfollowing Lifehacker on Feedly

So, that’s it then. I’m unsubscribed. I’m free from the call of the Lifehacker headline siren that lures me to the destruction of my productivity-seeking soul. Now if I can just learn to resist the urge to check Twitter and Facebook 279 times per day…

Posted in Me

Product review: Codenames: Duet

Carrie and I are always looking for fun two-player board games. Could we play games with other people? Yes, we could. Do we? No. I’d like to blame the pandemic, but honestly we were just as lame before COVID.

Anyway, I’d had Codenames: Duet on my wishlist for a while. When I saw it on sale for half off recently, I jumped on it. (Which is to say that, sometime after seeing it on sale and before the sale ended, I tapped the “Buy Now” button.)

Codenames: Duet is a word game that is best described as a combination of Password and Battleship. It’s a cooperative game, which is good for us, since Carrie doesn’t like to lose (despite doing it often when we play games together). You lay out some randomly selected word cards in a grid. Each player has a key card that identifies which words their partner has to guess, and which words are to be avoided. Gameplay is as simple as taking turns giving hints with one word and a number, like “fruit 3,” meaning you want your partner to find three words related to fruit. You get limited turns to clear the board (identify all the “secret agents”) without guessing wrong and ending the game with an “assassin.”

Example of Codenames: Duet game setup.

While the concept is simple, it takes some creativity to figure out a clue that connects words like “grass,” “dirt,” and “sidewalk” without also causing your partner to guess, say, “driveway.” It’s a fun challenge. At least, it is once you understand the rules. Not that we would have played several games thinking it was too easy because we didn’t limit the number of turns correctly. We’re educated people with strong reading comprehension skills… the kind of people who play word games for fun. You know, nerds.

Anyway, it is a fun game, and the randomness of the words and patterns in each game make it different each time. There’s even an advanced variation where you travel the world, with each destination providing a different “time limit” (number of turns) to vary the challenge level. In the end, I expect that Codenames: Duet is a game we’ll come back to with some frequency. After all, we’re nerds.

Rating: 4 out of 5 secret agents

A holiday song for 2021

We’ll be home for Christmas
To the tune of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent
Alternate lyrics by Maxim Weinstein

We’ll be home for Christmas
We’ve nothing to do
But watch TV and drink our tea
And open gifts for two

Christmas Eve will find us
Staring at our lawn
At least alone we won’t come
Down with omicron

We’ll be home for Christmas
Canceled our planned trip
Family, perhaps next year
If COVID levels slip

Christmas Day will find us
Here without a doubt
We’ll be home for Christmas
Because we can’t go out

We’ll be home for Christmas
Because we can’t go out

Alexa’s constraints make it a better assistant

“OK Google,” I said to my Pixel phone, “pause.”

I expected my music to stop playing. Instead, Google Assistant offered me the top search result: PAWS, an animal advocacy organization. This isn’t the only time Assistant has failed to catch my intent. More than once, I’ve said “never mind” after inadvertently invoking the Assistant with the wake phrase, only to be told that “Nevermind” was an album by Nirvana.

Don’t misunderstand me (even if my phone does). The versatility of Google Assistant has its perks. I love being able to set time or place based reminders. If I want to know how tall Angelina Jolie is (5’7″) or how long it will take me to get to my parents’ house (23 minutes), Assistant is ideal.

No, the problem with Assistant isn’t its lack of capabilities, but its lack of constraints. You can say anything to it, and it will respond. Even if the response is unrelated to what you need.

In contrast, Amazon’s Alexa has a large but limited vocabulary. My Echo may not know the phone number of the local CVS, but when I say “pause,” there’s no ambiguity—paws have no place in its syntax. If I say “Alexa… never mind,” it doesn’t mind. It just drops the conversation.

And, as it turns out, that’s what I want in a voice-activated assistant. I know what Alexa can do, and I know she’ll do it when I ask. When I need a search engine, I’ll talk to Google. But, for now, Alexa is my girl Friday.

Posted in Me

It’s time for Republicans to step up

The 115th Congress has begun. Republicans enter the session feeling triumphant, with majorities in both houses and a Republican (albeit a rogue one) in the White House. Indeed, even as unpredictable as he is, President-elect Trump is clearly on the side of dyed-in-the-wool Republicans on a lot of issues: lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations, reduced environmental regulation, and hawkish foreign policy, to name a few.

But there’s a difference between being an ideological conservative and being a… well,whatever it is that Donald Trump is. And the next two years will show who are the real conservatives—those Republicans that actually stand for something bigger than themselves—and those who are political hacks.

The evidence will begin mounting early, as the president-elect’s nominees for the executive branch come up for confirmation. I’m not calling on the Republican senators to reject every nominee that disagree with. I’m calling on them to reject those that don’t represent good government. Not “good” in the sense of “how Democrats think it should be.” But “good” in the sense of “will strive in good faith to do the job effectively.”

Here’s the oath of office that all civilian appointees of the federal government must take, per U.S. law:

I, name, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Can anyone really believe that Rick Perry, who said he wanted to eliminate the Energy Department, will “well and faithfully discharge the duties” of the head of that department? Will Jeff Sessions, the presumptive nominee for Attorney General, really “support and defend the Constitution,” when he clearly believes that Constitutional rights do not apply to all Americans?

Yes, it’s time for the real Republicans to stand up. Now is the time to show that they are fighting for a better America, rather than a better position on Trump’s naughty-or-nice list.

The real problem with online advertising

We’ve all heard the complaints about online advertising: it invades our privacy, it’s ruining traditional media, it’s an annoying distraction. But for all that, the advertising companies tell us, we’re supposed to be getting a valuable benefit: advertising that is personalized to our interests. Here’s the real problem, then: despite years of tracking our every move and mining all our data, personalized ads still suck.

On Facebook right now, I see a Microsoft Store ad for the new Surface Pro 3. Fair enough, I guess: I’m a tech geek and I recently read a couple reviews of the Surface Pro 3, because I’m curious about it. Yet I’m not in the market for a computer (in fact, Facebook should know that I recently purchased one, since I posted that information recently). And, even if I was, it wouldn’t be the Surface Pro 3, and it wouldn’t be from the Microsoft Store. Another recent ad (I think also on Facebook) that I saw repeatedly was for Digital Storm, the company from which I did buy my new PC. Yet I continued seeing the same ad, with the same picture of a computer I looked at briefly and decided I didn’t want, well after purchasing the one I did want.

Alongside an article about the Boston Celtics on the Boston Herald’s site, I currently see ads for CrashPlan (an online backup service I’ve been using for over a year) and a coupon for SCOTTeVEST with an exhortation to “see our most popular items,” even though I’ve seen their popular items many times and own one of them already.

On my work PC, I’ve recently been seeing two ads pop up repeatedly: one for my company’s own product and another encouraging me to apply to Year Up, the program for urban young adults where I used to work.

It’s not that these ads aren’t relevant to me. Clearly they are. Yet they’re not at all useful to me. To make them useful, they would have to expose me to brands and products that I’m not already thinking about. If you know I like Digital Storm computers, show me ads from other custom PC makers. If I wear SCOTTeVEST travel clothes, show me ads for other companies that sell travel gear. Of course, quality control is also important: these are companies known for high quality products, so if you show me ads from scammers and counterfeiters, I’m not going to be interested. But the advertisers should know that already.

As it is, the only ads I ever consider clicking on are the top few sponsored results in Google searches. Often these are exactly what I’m looking for. Of course, they’re also often the same as the top few organic search results (I just searched for “Hyundai,” and hyundaiusa.com was the first ad and the first search result). So, great, I get really useful ads the one time I don’t need them. (And, sorry, advertisers: you’re paying for clicks you would have gotten anyway.)

I recognize that I may not be a typical consumer and that my browsing and purchasing habits may be different from others’. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Ads haven’t yet gotten personalized enough to understand how I’m different and to make the ads useful. In aggregate, online advertising works, if the amount of money being poured into it is any indication. But for me, at least, it still sucks.

How much is too much?

Like many people, I have a bunch of blogs and news sites that I keep track of using the Feedly RSS reader. I also have a few newsletters that I receive via my home and work email addresses. It seems like I’m always falling behind on my feeds and the subsequent reading that they generate. So, I decided to do a little experiment: I timed myself catching up on 24 hours’ worth of feeds. Here are the results:

  • 40 minutes scrolling through the feeds, skimming or reading the occasional article, clipping a recipe, or adding a longer article to Pocket to read later.
  • Another 10 minutes doing the same for the newsletters.
  • 35 minutes reading the longer articles I had saved to Pocket (occasionally giving up on one partway through).

That’s 85 minutes, close to an hour and a half. And it’s worth noting that this didn’t include the time to read and “process” (in Getting Things Done vernacular) my Facebook feed (which I recently pared down after reading The Great Facebook Deep-Clean), my Twitter timeline, or my email. It also didn’t include the 20 minutes or so I usually spend each morning scanning news headlines on Boston.com and Google News and skimming interesting-sounding articles.

On one hand, an hour and a half per day is a lot of time just consuming (some sources of) content to keep up with what’s going in my professional field and a few areas of personal interest. On the other hand, there’s a value to that time investment. In my professional career, it allows me to make better decisions about the products I market and to credibly position myself as a subject matter expert. In my personal life, it stimulates my curiosity and creativity, and it gives me a better understanding of the world I live in. My reading helps me discover new recipes, useful lifehacks, and interesting tidbits to share with colleagues, friends, and my social networks.

But how much is too much? Do I need to purge my feeds and commit to fewer long articles? Or should I commit time regularly, much as I do for exercise, to stay on top of things, while allowing myself to skip a day or two here or there without feeling too guilty about it? Probably the solution is some combination of both, though I have this sneaking suspicion that I’ll never get it quite right and will always feel a bit behind. And that’s not to mention the time I probably should spend creating rather than consuming. But that’s a topic for another day.