Wikipedia on Mobile

February 17, 2019 • #

My most-used app on my iPhone is easily Wikipanion, the app I’ve used for a decade for reading Wikipedia. It’s one of the first apps I remember downloading and using heavily when the App Store launched. It’s probably one of the first apps I purchased the paid version of. I probably do 10 or more Wikipedia searches per day on average just from my phone. So adding that up we’re talking tens of thousands of articles browsed from this app. It’s always had top billing on my home screen.

But I’ve noticed over the past year or so it being slow to load, slow to focus the search box when I pop it open to look something up. It wasn’t bad enough to warrant disrupting a 10 year old habit, but I thought I’d take another look around to see if other Wiki apps had gotten better.

Some of the other alternatives out there like V and Wikiwand look great, but to me they prioritize form over function. I’m almost always in it to read text and get as much information on the screen as possible. Presentation needs to be good, but utility and performance are priorities.

Wikipedia for iOS

Which brings me to what I’m trying out now. For a long time the first-party Wikipedia app from the Wikimedia Foundation was subpar. I don’t recall specifics of why I never got into it, but I’d tried it multiple times and just couldn’t get used to it. I reinstalled it a week ago and it beats out all the other options easily.

It’s got plenty of settings to tweak the experience, a bookmarking feature, a “read later” queue, personal browsing history, and most of all, speed. A nice bonus is a front-and-center “Places” view to display geocoded articles on a map. It’s also open source. The “Explore” view is also excellent — one of my favorite aspects of using Wikipedia on desktop browser is the discoverability of interesting things.

Weekend Reading: Business Applications, Rays Prospects, and the Florida Panhandle

February 16, 2019 • #

👨🏽‍💻 Okta Businesses @ Work 2019

Interesting data here in Okta’s annual report. It’s clear that the way customer’s buy SaaS is very different than the “single-vendor” purchasing preferences from years past. SaaS allows businesses to buy and integrate the best-fit tools for any jobs:

We also looked at whether companies who invest in the Office 365 suite — the top app in our network — end up committing to a Microsoft-only environment, and the answer was clearly “no.” We found that 76% of Okta’s Office 365 customers have one or more apps that are duplicative of apps offered by Microsoft. Over 28% are chatting on Slack. Nearly 24% are connecting with their colleagues on Zoom. And over 28% of Okta’s Office 365 customers are “double bundling” themselves, subscribing to G Suite as well.

28% of customers have both Office 365 and G Suite. That’s a high number for an area that many consider zero-sum competition.

⚾️ The Most Unhittable Arm in the Minors

The Rays picked up Colin Poche in the Steven Souza, Jr. trade with the Diamondbacks last season. Sounds like he’s making some waves in the farm system:

The most unhittable arm in the minors is Colin Poche. Last year, he led the minor leagues in strikeout rate. This year, he again leads the minor leagues in strikeout rate, having increased his own strikeout rate by a dozen points despite going up against much stiffer competition. When Poche pitched in High-A last year, he struck out 37% of the hitters. In Double-A this year, he struck out 60% of the hitters. In Triple-A this year, he’s struck out 50% of the hitters. All year long, over 41.1 innings, he’s allowed just three runs. He’s allowed an OBP of .185, and he’s allowed a slugging percentage of .184. Colin Poche is turning in one of the most unbelievable performances you might ever see.

🌊 Florida State Parks After Hurricane Michael

The St. Joseph’s Peninsula is special to our family, having gone camping, sailing, and fishing their growing up. The hurricane storm surge cut right through the island north of the boat launch area. I remember walking from the campground down to the marina to go fishing. Now you’d have to swim to get between them.

Flexible Education

February 13, 2019 • #

This is part 2 of a series on learning, education, and what we might do to improve. Read part 1.

In my introduction to this series a couple weeks ago, I posited a few ways we could rethink education. The first idea was about increasing the flexibility of the system to create one more prepared to adapt to changing demand:

Create a system flexible enough to keep up with what markets demand (and I use “market” to mean “any post-education environment”) — our system is too rigid to bend and adapt to that demand

“Rigid” is a good way to describe most western education systems, and it’s my belief that this lack of flexibility is poorly suited to being adaptable to what markets demand. When you look back on the history of what we’d call “structured” education, it’s very young in the big picture. Modern American public education models can be traced back to the Prussian military academies of the late 19th century. Age-based grouping, structured progression through a hierarchy, measurement and ranking at each stage — these all suited the need of a military organization, the goals of which were much different than what we’re after today.

In Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse, he goes back to the start to try and understand how we got to where we are in education. The approach he lays out essentially disputes or reframes each of the implicit goals of the current public education system:

  • Instead of fixed age-based groupings, go back to the days of the town schoolhouse, where kids of various ages sat in the same room together
  • Rather than a forced progression, let students learn some of their preferred subjects, proceeding to the next when they feel comfortable doing so
  • And instead of being forced to “pass / fail” after a set period of time, use mastery-based learning to ensure there’s true understanding before building the next layer of concepts on a shaky foundation

Naturally such a wild restructuring of the system would be costly, time-consuming, and painful to peel away from the rigid institutions in place today. With his own Khan Academy, Khan is putting his own skin in this game to incrementally build toward a more sustainable future for education. The Khan Academy leverages modern tools and technology to first augment what’s already being done in public schools with teaching based on the principles outlined above.

Flexibility is not something the current model accommodates well at all. So much about each individual student varies wildly: home life, interests, physical vs. mental ability, and experience to name a few. Expecting to see complete alignment within an individual 12-month cohort sounds completely absurd when thought of in those terms. Then, when equity or uniformity is not achieved by year-end, we want to blame or “fix” everything else — be it teachers, course content, or parenting. I’d argue that the model for delivery of the education itself is what’s broken. Perfection is a noble objective, but it should be evident to anyone that it’s also a pipe dream (which also is not something to be upset about). Today’s system of rigorous measurement, grading, and scoring seems to be unfortunately focused on everything but the students.

I sometimes try to imagine the difference in outcome if the systems in place were organized around exposing ideas, identifying interests, harnessing said interests, and enabling students to have success in their areas of choice, even from an early age.

The argument is not to roll a kindergarten classroom back to anarchy and then “wait and see.” Obviously a medium is the goal. It is worthwhile to retain some amount of baseline exposure to various topics — math, reading, writing, science, humanities. But rather than zeroing in so closely on each and forcing every student to achieve total comprehension on everything, why not lower the baseline and raise targets on areas where students show strong aptitude in grade school?

We should establish the lowest possible baselines for foundational principles, then let students grow from there more organically than we do today. Improve the strengths rather than dragging forward the weaknesses.

Another huge benefit of something like the Khan Academy has nothing to do with western, rich public education systems at all — it can bring an education to an entire third of the world’s population that has little to no access to any at all. There’s an economy of scale here enabled by the internet that should be harnessed and invested in.

The Origin and Transmutation of Species

February 10, 2019 • #

Since The Origin of Species, Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been the foundation of our thinking about the evolution of life. Along the way there have been challengers to the broadness of that theory, and David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree brings together three core “modern” concepts that are beginning to take hold, providing a deeper understanding how lifeforms evolve.

The book mostly follows the research of the late Carl Woese, a microbiologist who spent his career studying microorganisms, looking for connections between creatures in the micro and macro. Beginning with Darwin’s tree of life, he sought to follow our individual branches back to the roots, looking for the cause of early splits and fractures in the genetic timeline that led us to where we are now.

Tree branches

The Tangled Tree traces the path of three separate yet interrelated discoveries over the past several decades:

  • The discovery of the Archaea — through the work of Woese and his associates, we now know that what was formerly a two-kingdom world of “prokaryotes” and “eukaryotes” was more complex than that. Hidden within the prokaryote kingdom was actually a genetically distinct kingdom dubbed “archaea.” These are fascinating creatures more like alien life than visually-similar bacteria, often found at the most extreme habitats like volcanic vents and permafrost layers fathoms deep.
  • Symbiogenesis — It was once thought that the organelles within cells developed on their own through natural selection and genetic mutation. This theory posits that certain components within cells were once their own independent (yet symbiotic) organisms, eventually subsumed by the host to become a single genetic lineage.
  • Horizontal gene transfer — This process is the most radical of all, and is the most germane to modern science, particularly when it comes to combating bacteria that can mutate and become invulnerable to current antibiotics. The process involves genes moving between branches of the tree, versus in the strictly linear ancestor → descendant fashion we’re all familiar with from biology class. Humans likely have had material inserted into our genomes in the relatively recent past from life far different from ourselves.

Quammen weaves together all of these ideas through the stories of their discoverers. There are probably a hundred different scientists mentioned in the book, many of whom collaborated along the way, sharing research findings and data to build a case that evolution doesn’t work exactly how we thought it did.

The diversity of life is difficult to comprehend, and the book brought out many statistics and factoids that stayed with me long after reading. How do 4 acids configured into various protein structures manifest as “life”? The sheer quantity of life growing and evolving beyond our level of perception is mind-boggling. The total mass of bacteria on earth exceeds that of all plants and animals combined. Within a typical human body, bacterial cells outnumber all other “human” cells by a 3-to-1 ratio. A bacteria known as prochlorococcus marinus is the most abundant lifeform, with 3 octillion individuals presumed to exist.

I’ve never been deeply interested in biology compared to other sciences, but The Tangled Tree was a thought-provoking, fascinating look at how much there is yet to be understood right at our fingertips. While we’re trying to understand the origins of the universe and what star systems look like millions of light years away, there’s also a mysterious, terrifyingly complex world within our own bodies.

Weekend Reading: LiDAR, Auto Generated Textbooks, and Paleo Plate Tectonics

February 9, 2019 • #

🛣 Creating Low-Cost LiDAR

This is a great breakdown of the different elements of LiDAR technology, looking at three broad areas: beam direction, distance measurement, and frequencies. They compare the tech of 10 different companies in the space to see how each is approaching the problem.

📚 An Algorithm to Auto-Generate Textbooks

Taking off of the Wikibooks project, this team is aiming to generate books from Wikipedia content using ML techniques.

Given the advances in artificial intelligence in recent years, is there a way to automatically edit Wikipedia content so as to create a coherent whole that is useful as a textbook? Enter Shahar Admati and colleagues at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. These guys have developed a way to automatically generate Wikibooks using machine learning. They call their machine the Wikibook-bot. “The novelty of our technique is that it is aimed at generating an entire Wikibook, without human involvement,” they say.

🌍 Paleogeographic History of Plate Tectonics

This simple app lets you slide from the Jurassic to the Holocene. A vivid demonstration of how long 200 million years really is.

Paleo Plate Tectonics

Sierra Nevada, Basin and Range

February 8, 2019 • #

One of the highlights of the west → east flight from Northern California is the chance to get views over the ranges of California, Nevada, and Colorado. The first leg of my flight home this week took me from San Jose to Denver, offering up those snow-capped mountains I so rarely get to see living in the southeast.

Sierra Nevada

Not too far into the flight you come upon the Sierra Nevada, if you’re lucky passing right over the Yosemite Valley. Today there was a thin, low cloud layer over the mountains, so the view wasn’t perfectly clear, but I caught pretty great views of the peaks and notches of the high Sierras.

Basin and range

The folds of the basin and range province as you pass over Nevada are some of my favorite landforms to check out from the air — 500 miles of alternating faulted mountains and flatlands.