My summer training program

This summer is all about training. Yes, I'm trying to run regularly, but I'm actually talking about training machine-learning algorithms.

I've been trying to learn machine learning for about three years — only to feel hopelessly overwhelmed. It was as though someone said, "With a chicken, a cow, and a field of wheat, you can make a lovely soufflé!"  

I took online classes, read books, and tried to modify sample code. But unless I devoted myself to the computer version of animal husbandry, it seemed, I was stuck.

Then someone at work mentioned fast.ai. It's a machine-learning library for Python that got me to the eggs-milk-flour stage, and provided some great starter recipes. Thanks to free guides and videos, I was soon baking algorithms that actually worked.

Now I want to get good, and experiment with different flavors and styles.

So this summer, I'm setting out to train and use new machine learning models, at least one each week. I'll try several techniques, use different kinds of data, and solve a variety of problems. It's a little like my Make Every Week project, providing constraints to inspire and motivate me.

I'll share what I learn, both here and at qz.ai where the Quartz AI Studio is helping journalists use machine learning, and I get to practice machine learning at work. 

In the fall I'll be teaching a few workshops and classes that will incorporate, I hope, some of the things I've learned this summer. If you'd like to hear about those once they're announced, drop your email address into the signup box on this page and I'll keep you posted.

Time to train!

You can't make your NY Times subscription online-only online

Our family believes in paying for good journalism, so we have a few subscriptions – including the New York Times.

When we signed up, we got online access along with physical papers delivered on the weekend. But we almost never read the paper version anymore, and thought it a waste. So today I went online to change my subscription to all-digital.

But you can't.

You must actually call the New York Times and speak to someone. I had to call two phone numbers, speak to two robots, and two people. All together, it took me 15 minutes. Not forever, but the user experience was a C-minus at best.

Here's what I did:

A bot now updates my Slack status

One of my closest collaborators is a teammate far away — I'm in New York and Emily Withrow is in Chicago.

We stay connected chatting on Slack. But recently Emily asked if I could regularly update my Slack status to indicate what I was doing at the moment, like coding, meeting, eating. It's the kind of thing colleagues in New York know just by glancing toward my desk.

Changing my Slack status isn't hard; remembering do it is. So I built a bot to change it for me.

New Kid on the Blockchain

UPDATED at 7:45 pm ET on 9/17/2018 with new information. See the end of the post for details.

It's my time to go crypto.

I've followed blockchain technology, principles and trends for years without getting involved, but now have couple of reasons to get real: A new blockchain-based journalism project is about to launch, and my employer, Quartz, just launched a new cryptocurrency newsletter.

It also seemed perfect for my practice of beginning new things repeatedly.

The inspiration

Earlier this year, friends Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant left their public radio jobs to join a new journalism … thing … called Civil. I had heard snippets about Civil, and started listening to Manoush's and Jen's podcast, ZigZag, part of which attempts to explain it.

After weeks of being pretty confused, I think I get it. Here's my attempt: Civil is a system designed to foster and reward quality journalism in a decentralized way, in contrast to platforms like Facebook and Google upon which so much journalism rests today.

The system’s backbone is the blockchain-based Civil token, abbreviated CVL. Holders of tokens can start news organizations in the system, challenge the membership of other news organizations in the system and/or cast votes when such challenges arise.

I have no idea if it will work. But I’m interested, and I’d rather participate than watch from the sidelines. So I’m willing to give it a whirl and okay with losing a little money in the process.

To participate, I just needed to buy some CVL ... though it turns out there's no just about it. But that's okay, too.

Beginning as a Practice

[I recently presented this post as a 5-minute Ignite talk.]

On a morning flight some years back, the pilot's cheerful voice came over the speakers.

"I'm glad you're flying with us. This is the first time I've flown a Boeing 747,” the captain said with a pause. “Today."

We all laughed, of course. Who’d want to be on a pilot’s maiden flight?!

Not us. We want experts. Society counts on them. Companies pay them better. Spectators watch them play. Vacationers rely on their forecasts. We attend educational institutions and work long hours to become them — the qualified, the trusted, the best.

Nobody likes being a beginner.

Except that I do.

Eyeo Festival Videos: Check them out

The Eyeo Festival just posted all of the videos from the 2018 festival, which is such a great service. Above is my talk on how we in the Quartz Bot Studio tell stories with conversational interfaces.

The festival had so many great speakers, and it's literally impossible to see them all live.

Here are some of my favorites I did see at the time, and highly recommend:

Check them out! 


Giving Better Weather to Alexa

Nearly every day, someone in our family asks Alexa for the day's weather. The default response is fine -- high temp, low temp, sun or rain.

But given our three nor'easters, intense wind chills, and high-wind days, that wasn't enough. How much rain? When will it start? How much snow? How cold will it feel?

We needed something better.

Fortunately the US National Weather Service does a fantastic job writing up little descriptions of what's in store for every spot in the country. It's been my go-to source for years. Could I get Alexa to say that?

Short answer: Yes, I could. And now you can add "Better Weather" to your Alexa, too. For free. (In the US only, for now.)

For a longer description of how I made it, read on.