0.0 Context Setting
Writing this on Sunday March 28, 2021.
It’s a grey day in Portland, Oregon, with the kind of rain that threatens to become more than a slight mist, and the kind that feels like weather apps aren’t great at predicting (e.g. a 20% chance of rain, which means… a 20% chance of rain by volume? UNCLEAR).
1.0 Some things that caught my attention
1.1 New York, IBM and Blockchain
Matthew Green tweeted [tweet] with a link to The Intercept’s coverage of NYC deploying a “blockchain” solution for vaccine passports, Cuomo’s Covid-19 Vaccine Passport Leaves Users Clueless About Privacy.
The Intercept’s story is good on this, and I think Bruce Schneier sums up the situation quite well: there’s “no sound reason to use blockchain storage for this sort of application” and for me, a kicker:
the fact that it’s private renders it only superficially similar to other applications — “‘a blockchain’ for marketing purposes only,” as [Schneier] put it. What IBM is offering New Yorkers provides no benefit beyond what you’d get from any other way to store data on the internet, Schneier and Green agreed, but adds needless complications. “To the extent that it just uses a data structure — sure, I don’t particularly care what data structure the database uses,” explained Schneier. “And neither does anyone else. To the extent that it uses any actual blockchain features, run away fast. It doesn’t add anything.” [The Intercept]
I mean I’d put it a bit more clearly, given how often I’ve seen IBM’s marketing materials around how they claim blockchain can be used:
There’s a distinct group of High Level Decision Makers who can be marketed to via methods like Economist print ads and the kind of ads you see in airports;
Those High Level Decision Makers make, I don’t know, approval decisions, but don’t actually do much of the work? They do things like imply that the big computer system probably should use Blockchain because they’ve read great things about it in this quarter’s Monocle High Level Decision Maker Supplement, next to the Omega watch ad.
IBM, or some other enterprise IT services company, decides, oh look, we can use Blockchain to sell, well, enterprise IT services, I guess because it sounds new and interesting and we can say that it’s Secure and if you use it, you can have things like Ensure End-to-End Supply Chain Integrity (look, I can words too!)
(It doesn’t actually do those things, and yes, it’s useful in some cases).
So IBM makes a bunch of ads saying stuff like (I paraphrase/make-up) IBM Blockchain Delivers An Enterprise Supply Chain And Logistics Management System You And Your Suppliers You Can Trust 24/7, along with some photographs of coffee growers and how Blockchain is great for them because now they know how much the coffee is being sold for and this totally stops them from being screwed over. Because this time, Blockchain is definitely the thing that will get rid of all those asymmetrical power relationships between worker and capital, and ensure a fairer negotiating position, yep.
Anyway, all those shiny ads finally pay off one day and a High Level Decision Maker gets their way and before you know it, someone’s made something called an Excelsior Pass, and… I’m sorry? Excelsior? If I didn’t know Excelsior was the motto of the state of New York, then… this would be a weird name to use?
So, right. Someone’s bought this thing, and it’s by IBM, and that’s probably in part because nobody got fired for buying IBM before and also in part because someone saw an airport ad and thought: oh, IBM can put this Blockchain thing in, that’ll help us be seen as technological and forward thinking, so then suddenly you have a vaccine passport with Blockchain in it.
And then you get articles like The Intercept’s which are admittedly in the minority, because most coverage just mentions the blockchain stuff in passing, like this NY Post article:
The app, launched after two pilot demonstrations held in recent weeks, will use blockchain technology and encryption to ensure the health information is stored securely. [NY Post]
But otherwise, IBM’s suddenly sold a Blockchain app and it’s being used for something high-profile as a vaccine passport, and you’ve got a little bit of press going: are you fucking serious and I hope that IBM marketing or whomever have shit themselves a little bit because now they have to use blockchain for things? And it’s… snake oil?
Who am I kidding, this sort of thing has always happened and will keep happening.
1.2 In Which The New York Times Is Stupid Again
(Clearly I mean The New York Times, the institution, is stupid, again. I do not the individual people who comprise the institution because that would be mean, and entirely the opposite of the behavior I wish to model for my children.)
Emily Bell, who is a most definitely a very experienced former digital news executive pointed out in a tweet that
I am here to tell you as a very experienced former digital news exec the lack of attention the @nytimes gives the Spelling Bee is going to be the undoing of the organisation .....along with all the perfectly good words it won’t allow cc @mariabustillos tweet
Some background: the Spelling Bee is a simple little word game. Every night at midnight pacific time, 3am Eastern Time (which means us on the West Coast get a head start on those East Coasters who are playing), the New York Times publishes what we aficionados call a “new Bee”.
A “Bee” is made of 7 letters from the English alphabet. 7 letters means 6 of the letters can be arranged around the remaining 7th central letter.
6 letters arranged around a central letter means you can use a hexagon motif, like so:
Hexagons are commonly associated with the structure of honeycombs, made by bees.
In America, I have come to understand that part of the educational experience involves something called a Spelling Bee, where various children are embarrassed or volunteer as tribute to appear in front of other children and offer to spell words on demand. I do not understand this, but it appears to be some sort of ritual that many Americans go through. This phenomenon has been documented in such cultural artifacts as Spellbound (2002, and a 2003 Academy Award Best Documentary nominee) and Akeelah and the Bee (2006).
Hence, this puzzle game is called “Spelling Bee” and someone at the NYT must be (reasonably rightly, I suppose) quite pleased with themselves.
The object of the game is to find as many words that include the central letter as possible. These words must be four letters long, or longer. You get bonus points (everyone loves these) if the word you find is a pangram, that is, a word that uses every single letter of the Bee at least once. It is useful to remember that pangrams may use each letter more than once.
There are levels of achievement corresponding to the number of words/points you score as you find words in the Bee. They are:
- Good Start
- Moving Up
- Nice (really, NYT? Really?)
Personally I consider myself to be a failure if I don’t achieve at least Amazing.
After a while of playing, you might have the secret knowledge of Queen Bee revealed to you, this is where you have found all of the words.
This game is Very Addictive and can become quite competitive and you can also become quite irritating, like me when I post screenshots of having achieved Genius.
Stuff The New York Times Should Be Doing
Well, first it should have a better dictionary that accounts for young people knowing words like COUNTIF which as everyone knows a proper word from Microsoft Excel.
But more seriously (ha) The NYT should do something like this:
Form a product team around Spelling Bee. It looks like Spelling Bee lives inside whichever editorial/content team runs Puzzles, and that the Puzzles team got a once-over from a technology team who built the stuff that powers the various Puzzles and then got pulled off to do something else.
Actually have some sort of analytics about how many people are playing Spelling Bee and how often? It certainly looks like lots of people are playing Spelling Bee amongst my Twitter bubble NPR and New Yorker tote bag toting set.
Anyway, what I’d encourage them to do is to put together a proposal to spin out Spelling Bee as it is own app because they happen to have something very valuable (The New York Times as a brand) and half the problem of getting people to use something in the first place is just getting it noticed, if it’s something differentiable like a word puzzle.
Leaderboards, both global and local/friends-based.
Honestly, if you really wanted to, I guess you could license Spelling Bee to Zynga so they could fold it into the Words With Friends stable and have it there, but, you know, that’s not as fun as running your own integrated product and repeats mistakes like “oh, digital is a thing the other people do, we’re a news organization”.
Challenges/achievements. I generally dislike achievements? But I’ve started playing in a different way I’ve started getting better, one of which is trying to see if I can get to Genius without using any 4 letter words.
All the usual stuff, sigh: streaks, just even general statistics like the number of times you’ve achieved each of the levels, and so much more.
Daily games, that everyone plays. Custom games that you can play with just friends to challenge them.
Custom dictionaries. Like Emily points out, the dictionary is… well, it’s very New York Times. Some things are in it, and some things are inexplicably not (TELNET is in it, but TUPLE is not and I can’t believe I know that and can tell you it). But custom dictionaries would allow for quite horrendous stuff like the Marvel Cinematic Universe dictionary, which obviously is an in-app purchase/DLC.
Oh god, all the DLC.
But the point remains that the NYT conceived (or bought? Maybe? Who can tell) Spelling Bee, pushed it out into the world and then promptly forgot about it.
2.0 Some shorter things that caught my attention
Government technology journalism done right
The Markup just ran a piece, We Ran Tests on Every State’s COVID-19 Vaccine Website which is notable because it’s a sort of computable journalism: running automated tests like Google’s Lighthouse to see how quickly state covid vaccine websites load. This is good! More like this!
How big, really?
You may be aware that there a) a marine vessel cargo ship, the Ever Given, exists and more relevantly, b) that it is stuck in the Suez Canal. More precisely, it is not aground, it is in ground as it has managed to embed itself into Egypt.
It can be hard to understand exactly how big a cargo ship like Ever Given is. To help, I produced these graphics, which you can choose to click through to on Twitter instead of me forcing you to see them inline here:
Okay, that’s it for this episode. I am very tired. How are you?