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Review of The Chessboard and the Web

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Title: The Chessboard and the Web

Author: Anne-Marie Slaughter

Publisher: Yale University Press

Copyright: 2017

ISBN13: 978-0-300-21564-9

Length: 296

Price: $26.00

Rating: 92%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

The first step to winning a debate is to define the terms used to discuss the issue. In The Chessboard and the Web, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the U.S. Department of State, characterizes international relations as a series of interconnecting relationships. Rather than pursue a statist realpolitik strategy, she argues in favor of a cooperative, supportive approach.

Games in Theory and Practice

Dr. Slaughter starts her argument by comparing the traditional view of competition described by Thomas Schelling’s classic text on game theory, The Strategy of Conflict, with operations on a chess board. Of the classic two-by-two matrix games that Schelling describes in his book, the game of Chicken comes closest to emulating the risk of nuclear war that lurks in the background of many international conflicts. If you’re not familiar with the game of Chicken, you might have seen it in 1950s teen movies, when two boys drive at each other at high speed. The first one to swerve is the “chicken” and takes a small loss, but if neither swerves there’s a head-on collision and both players suffer a huge loss.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, perhaps the best known of the classic games, demonstrates how a game’s payouts can be constructed to convince individuals to violate their best interests. The idea is that two criminals have been apprehended, separated, and offered a choice. If a criminal testifies against the other (defects) and the other refuses to testify against them (cooperates), the one who testified will go free and the other will go to prison for ten years. If both testify, they will go to jail for five years. If neither testifies, each will go to jail for one year. Even though the best choice for both criminals is to refuse to testify and serve a little time in jail, the fact they can’t communicate with each other means they can’t trust the other’s intentions. The penalty for unmatched cooperation is a long jail term while the other goes free, so the logical choice is for both to defect and accept a suboptimal outcome.

The third game Slaughter mentions, the Stag Hunt (also called the coordination game) allows for scenarios where two players can achieve better outcomes by cooperating than by competing. In the Stag Hunt, two hunters can choose to go after a hare or a stag. If a player goes after a hare, they will always get it and win one point. If both players go after a stag, they will each get three points. If one player chooses hare and the other chooses stag, the player choosing hare gets one point and the player choosing stag gets zero. Even with repeated play, it’s easy for players to fall into the trap of getting a steady payoff of one point per round without discovering that cooperation yields better results. As with all of the classic two-by-two games, the main limitation is the lack of communication between the players.

Networks and Connections

After introducing game theory, Slaughter describes networks and basics of network analysis in the context of international relations. For example, she mentions different measures of connectedness, such as the number of connections leading to and from a network node (its degree), the node’s place in the network (its centrality), and the number of times it serves as a connection between two other nodes (its betweenness). She then explores the strengths and weaknesses of the standard network topologies: star, hub-and-spoke, and mesh. Networks appear throughout international relations, whether among states (such as the European Union) or in non-governmental organizations and terrorist groups. Some networks are tightly interconnected (have a high density), while others are more sparse.

Slaughter describes several major types of international networks, starting with resilience networks. Resilience networks can serve as defense, recovery, and stabilization tools. Doctors Without Borders is one example of a networked organization that provides health care in recovery and stabilization roles. Task networks are similar to resilience networks in some respects, but one distinction is that they are temporary groupings assembled to complete work through cooperation, collaboration, or innovation. Cooperation comes with significant risks. If a partner defects, such as when an OPEC member nation produces more oil than its quota allows, then the strength of the network depends in large part on the effectiveness of punishments administered by other group members.

The final category of networks, scale networks, describe how solutions that work well in microcosm can grow. In a replication network, a solution can be repeated with little or no modification at a new location. One such network is the Global Alliance for Vaccination and Immunization (GAVI). GAVI coordinates transport and delivery of vaccines to vulnerable populations to help restrict the spread of disease. Finally, cumulation networks bring knowledge and expertise into a single entity. One example is GitHub, the online source code repository that programmers around the world rely on.

Network Power

As you might expect, Slaughter argues strongly in favor of a networked approach instead of following the realist’s emphasis on states with interests rather than allies. She cites former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s adoption of Joseph Nye and Suzanne Nossel’s concept of “Smart Power”, where states use all means at their disposal, from military power to trade, diplomacy, and foreign aid, to influence allies, institutions, and international norms. At some point the distinction between “smart power” and the traditional realist view becomes moot; realists use all of those tools as well, they just do so with different intentions.

Near the end of The Chessboard and the Web, Slaughter compares her liberal internationalist (she would say humanist) approach to Joshua Ramo’s “Hard Gatekeeping” (statist) approach. As she notes, the discussion has raged between proponents of a power-based foreign policy versus those advocating a values-based foreign policy for centuries. Her ideal scenario is an Open Order where states remain important and powerful but operate within an international network charged with “acknowledging and validating individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions not simply as state subjects but as actors in their own right through global networks.”

Conclusion

Foreign policy, diplomacy, and statecraft require careful planning and execution to advance one’s interests. As with all such debates, it’s a matter of striking a balance between a state’s interests and those of its allies, competitors, and neutrals. Advocates of the Hard Gatekeeping approach would argue that the “Smart Power” approach isn’t so smart because it would leave the U.S. exposed to defectors. Even so, I find Slaughter’s arguments in The Chessboard and the Web to be convincing if not quite compelling. States can benefit from well-applied connections, but deciding on the extent of that connectivity and exposure is a devilishly tricky prospect. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Review of Driverless from MIT Press

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Title: Driverless

Authors: Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-262-03522-4

Length: 328

Price: $29.95

Rating: 94%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Research and development of driverless cars has reached the popular press over the past few years, but until now attempts to frame the debate have remained in the specialty press and academic journals. In Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman offer a valuable perspective on the technological and policy implications of autonomous vehicles.

Seven Myths

The concept of the driverless car has been around almost as long as the automobile itself, but only in the past few years has the technology underpinning the concept advanced and evolved enough to bring it close to realization. Even so, there is enough disagreement and skepticism to slow the adoption of driverless cars.

Lipson and Kurman organize their narrative around what they call the Seven Delaying Myths that slow advances in driverless car networks:

  1. Autonomous driving technology will evolve out of today’s driver-assist technology
  2. Technological progress is linear
  3. The public is resistant
  4. Driverless cars require extensive investment in infrastructure
  5. Driverless cars represent an ethical dilemma
  6. Driverless cars need to have a nearly perfect driving record to be safe enough
  7. The adoption of driverless cars will be abrupt

I can’t address each point in depth here, but I’ll make a few notes. The second myth, that technological progress is linear, is clearly false. Elementary analyses of networks show that non-linear growth occurs as the number of interconnected members increases. Those connections drive innovation through aggressive idea sharing, competition, and cooperation. The staggering growth of internet technologies and platforms puts this myth to rest easily.

The fourth point, that driverless cars require extensive investment in infrastructure, was true under the completely impractical Electronic Highway paradigm promulgated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Lane sensors and wires embedded in the road and sensors installed in the cars were prohibitively expensive and required far more computing power than was reasonably available at the time. By 2014, the U.S. government backed research into a paradigm called V2X, where cars exchanged data with other cars, the road, and roadside sensors. Even though the available technologies and processing power were exponentially better than what was available in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the V2X system used a top-down approach where the system, writ broadly, managed each car’s behavior.

One of the authors attended a 2014 U.S. Department of Transportation conference on autonomous vehicles and was astounded to see just a single session of the multi-day event devoted to Google’s self-driving cars and deep learning algorithms. Disagreeing with the DOT’s top-down approach (noted by including the phrase intelligent cars in the book’s subtitle), the authors believe that putting the smarts and sensors in the cars and using the highway’s infrastructure as a series of checkpoints and information relays is the superior solution. I find their argument persuasive. Advances in deep learning and agent-based models let individual vehicles build their skills, which they can combine with other vehicles’ experiences to develop an ever-improving ensemble model through a process the authors call fleet learning.

The Road Ahead

Driverless vehicles have started to appear on American roads, but significant objections remain. What Lipson and Kurman label as Myth #6, that driverless cars need to have a perfect driving record to be safe enough, poses two problems. The first is that it’s easy for critics to move the goal posts. Whatever safety level driverless cars have attained, it’s easy to use the specter of a runaway or hacked vehicle a passenger has no way to control to argue that the cars must be even safer. Second, humans are horrible drivers. According to World Health Organization figures updated in May 2014, 1.2 million people are killed in car accidents worldwide every year.

And yet, even though driverless cars offer the prospect of safer roads, the loss of privacy and autonomy weighs heavily in the balance. While Myth #3, that the public is resistant, is less true than it was, a significant proporation of Americans identify strongly with their car and see it as a way to maintain their freedom. Leaving the driving to a robot would deprive those individuals of an activity they cherish, which is an attitudinal barrier policy makers can’t ignore.

Conclusion

Driverless is an excellent book that offers a systematic and informative narrative on the history, state of the art, and future of driverless cars. Framing the issues through their Seven Myths offers a lens into the rhetoric supporting innovation and adoption of autonomous vehicles. There is much work to do on both the technological and policy sides—Lipson and Kurman’s work contributes meaningfully to that discussion.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

February 22, 2017 at 10:00 am

Review of Infomocracy, by Malka Older

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Title: Infomocracy

Author: Malka Older

Publisher: Tor.com

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-765-38515-4

Length: 384

Price: $24.99

Rating: 98%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Timing, as they say, is everything. Tor.com releases Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy on June 7, into the teeth of a U.S. presidential election cycle, which is the best possible time for the book to come out. I’m happy to report that both publisher and author make the most of the opportunity.

World of Infomocracy

Infomocracy envisions a speculative future in the mid-to-late 21st century where most states have joined a world government system based on local rule. Under this system, the countries have been divided into centenals, which are governing units of 100,000 residents. Each centenal may chose the regime by which they wish to be governed, with choices including ideological governments such as Heritage (conservative), Liberty (libertarian), or Policy1st (everyone’s dream party that advocates the “demonstrably best” policies on each issue, for some definitions of “demonstrably best”); corporate governments including Phillip Morris, 888, and Coca-Cola; and a smattering of nationalist and local parties. The government that wins the most centenals gains the Supermajority, which gives it significant influence at the supranational level. Some countries, including likely candidates Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, decided not to join the world government scheme and govern independently.

At the center of Older’s world lies Information, a global service that combines our current internet, the Internet of Things (e.g., this pachinko machine paid out a 28,000 yen jackpot on such and such a date), as well as manipulable visualizations and heads-up displays. I think the combination of a governing scheme akin to that found in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash with an information service more like the one described in Minority Report serves the story’s needs admirably.

Ground Game

The popular aphorism that “all politics is local” describes a world divided into 100,000-person mini-states quite well. Infomocracy follows Ken, an undercover agent of influence for Policy1st, and Mishima, a researcher and sometime security worker for Information. As in William Gibson’s novels such as Pattern Recognition, we receive the barest hints of what the main characters look like, focusing instead on what they know, what they do, and how they react within their milieu.

As the story progresses, we follow Ken and Mishima around the world as they embark on assignments, react to emergencies, and explore their burgeoning relationship. Sometimes their efforts create the desired change, sometimes they get a mixed result, and sometimes everything goes wrong. Those varied outcomes, which highlight the joy and pain that are never far from the tactical-level worker’s mind, are no doubt the product of Older’s work as a humanitarian aid worker in Japan, Darfur, Mali, and other places (including three years as a team leader), as well as her appointment as a Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015. When you consider that experience in tandem with her master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University and Ph.D. work at l’Institut d’Études Politques de Paris, you get a sense of the intellectual firepower she brings to the task.

Events in Infomocracy proceed in a manner that is both familiar and surprising. To paraphrase Chekhov, “If you see a global information network over the fireplace in Act One, it will go off in Act Five.” We don’t quite get to Act Five before the information and communication grid goes down, but fail it does and the hell that was breaking loose accelerates into a maelstrom Ken and Mishima must navigate.

Older brings the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. I didn’t give the book a 100% rating because I thought a few minor elements weren’t handled as well as they might have been, but I don’t feel compelled to write an artificially “balanced” review that makes too much of those quibbles. The book’s too good to spend much time on a few bits that were merely good instead of outstanding.

Conclusion

Infomocracy doesn’t read like a first novel—rather, it reads like the work of an experienced author who can leverage her significant life experience into a compelling narrative. I recommend Malka Older’s Infomocracy enthusiastically and without reservation. I look forward to her next book.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 40 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

May 31, 2016 at 3:56 pm

Book Review: MOOCs, by Jonathan Haber

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Title: MOOCs

Author: Jonathan Haber

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52691-3

Length: 227

Price: $13.95

Rating: 90%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, offer free classes to anyone with internet access and a willingness to learn. As author Jonathan Haber notes in his recent MIT Press book MOOCs, this educational innovation is working its way through the hype cycle. First touted as an existential threat to traditional “sage on the stage” lecture-based learning, the media has inevitably turned to highlighting the platform’s flaws. How MOOCs evolve from their freemium model remains to be seen.

Haber is an independent writer and researcher who focuses on education technology. This book is based in part on his attempt to re-create a philosophy undergraduate degree by taking free online courses and, where necessary, reading free online textbooks. In MOOCs, Haber captures the essence of the courses, both through his personal experience as well as his encapsulation of the history, current practice, and impact of MOOCs in the social, educational, and corporate realms.

MOOCs as a Learning Environment

The allure of MOOCs centers around their ability to share knowledge with students who might not be able to attend MIT, Georgetown, Stanford, the University of Edinburgh, or other leading institutions. Students can watch videos on their own schedule and, if they’re not concerned about receiving a Statement of Accomplishment or similar recognition, they don’t have to turn in homework or take quizzes on time or at all.

Most videos are 5-10 minutes in length, though some courses that present complex content can have videos that stretch to as long as 45 minutes. Production values range from a professor sitting in their office and facing a camera (often with PowerPoint slides displayed at least part of the time the professor speaks) to videos including animations and location shots that take significant time and budget to produce.

MOOCs offer three general grading policies: quizzes and tests with multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions, computer programs submitted to an automated grader (very common in machine learning courses), and peer grading. There’s no possible way for professors to grade essays or computer programs from thousands of students, so they have to rely on objective mechanisms and peer grading to carry the load. Objective tests are acceptable, but many students dislike peer review even in cases where it’s clearly necessary.

Institutions sponsoring MOOCs go to great length to distinguish students who complete a MOOC from their traditional students. Certificates or Statements of Achievement stress that the holder is not a Wharton/Stanford/MIT student and that the certificate conveys no rights to claim such status. Most MOOCs also use much looser grading standards than traditional courses. For example, students are often allowed multiple attempts at homework or exams and the total grade required to pass a MOOC is often in the 60-70% range. These relaxed requirements make certificates easier to earn and probably increase retention, but the end result is a much less rigorous test of student ability.

Controversies

As with any disruptive technology, MOOCs have generated controversy. The first question is whether, despite their huge enrollments (some courses have more than 100,000 students registered), the courses’ equally huge drop-out rates. As an example, consider the following statistics from the September 5, 2014 session of the Wharton School’s course An Introduction to Financial Accounting, created and taught by Professor Brian Bushee (which I passed, though without distinction):

Number of students enrolled: 111,925

Number of students visiting course: 74,599

Number of students watching at least one lecture: 61,130

Number of students submitting at least one homework: 25,078

Number of students posting on a forum: 3,497

Number of signature track signups: 3,953

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment: 7,689

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction: 2,788 (included in total receiving SoA)

The ratios that stand out are that only 54.6% of enrolled students watched at least one lecture, 22.4% submitted at least one homework, and 6.87% of students earned a Statement of Accomplishment. That pass rate is fairly typical for these courses. While the percentage seems miniscule, another MOOC professor noted that, even with just 5,000 or so students passing his online course, his 10-week MOOC cohort represented more students than had passed through his classroom in his entire career.

Another concern is who benefits from MOOCs. Students require internet access to view course movies, at least in a way that can be counted by the provider, so there is a significant barrier to entry. Surveys show that the majority of MOOC students are university educated, but there are still large groups from outside the traditional “rich, Western, educated” profile. So, while many students appear to come from richer, Western countries, the courses do overcome barriers to entry.

Finally, MOOCs raise the possibility that courses from “rock star” professors could replace similar offerings taught by professors at other schools. For example, San Jose State University licensed content from a popular Harvard political philosophy course taught on edX with the intention that their own professors would teach to the acquired outline, not their own. The philosophy faculty refused to use the content and wrote an open letter to the Harvard professor complaining about the practice. A similar circumstance led Princeton professor Mitchell Duneier, who created and taught the vastly popular Sociology course offered by Coursera, to decline permission to run his course a second time. Coursera wanted to license his content for sale to other universities, which could save money by mixing video and in-person instruction. Duneier saw this action as a potential excuse to cut states’ higher education funding and pulled his course.

Conclusions

Haber closes the book with a discussion of whether or not he achieved his goal of completing the equivalent of a four-year philosophy degree in one year using MOOCs and other free resources. He argues both for and against the claim (demonstrating a fundamental grasp of sound argumentation, at the very least) and describes his capstone experience: a visit to a philosophy conference. His test was whether he could understand and participate meaningfully in sessions and discussions. I’ll leave his conclusions for you to discover in the book.

I found MOOCs to be an interesting read and a useful summary of the developments surrounding this learning platform. That said, I thought the book could have been pared down a bit. Some of the discussions seemed less concise than they might have been and cutting about 20 pages would have brought the book in line with other entries in the Essential Knowledge series. It’s hard to know what to trim away, though, and 199 small-format pages of main text isn’t much of a burden for an interested reader.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Book Review: Grassroots for Hire

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Title: Grassroots for Hire

Author: Edward T. Walker

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-107-61901-2

Length: 282

Price: $32.99

Rating: 96%

 

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Grassroots politics, the common term for political movements that use popular participation to effect change, came to prominence in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Starting in the 1930s, but particularly in response to the social movements of the 1960s that challenged the ruling elites, consulting firms offered services to help clients develop, focus, and deploy campaigns to shape policy using popular opinion.

Edward T. Walker, a professor of sociology and that University of California, Los Angeles, captured the results of his detailed study of political consulting firms specializing in grassroots mobilization in his book, Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy. The product of several years’ work interviewing grassroots consulting firms and analyzing data on the industry, Walker’s book offers a dispassionate and detailed look into this category of firms.

An Example Campaign

The author opens his commentary with a discussion of Students for Academic Choice, an advocacy organization started by for-profit colleges and trade schools such as the University of Phoenix. This organization ran an advocacy campaign, which included letter-writing and email efforts from students of for-profit universities, with the goal of ensuring these schools remained on the approved institutions list for federal student loan programs.

Students for Academic Choice recruited student leaders and provided support services, including template emails students could send to lawmakers public email accounts. All the participant had to do was fill in information such as their course of study and institution before sending it to their representative. The process of identifying opinion leaders, designing support activities, and driving participation is different in the details but often follows a standard pattern that’s well suited to templated consulting.

Walker goes into some detail on the structure of and range of services offered by grassroots consulting firms. Many of the interviews were done on a not-for-attribution basis, but in some of those cases he could still share significant details by choosing what to reveal and masking the identity of the firm and the individual he spoke with. As with any profession, participants show a range of motivations and attitudes, ranging from caring deeply about the issues they choose to support to working actively for whoever is willing to hire them.

Astroturfing

Grassroots for Hire also spends a good deal of time on so-called “astroturf” campaigns. AstroTurf is the patented trade name of a synthetic turf used on sports fields for many years. Just as AstroTurf might be thought of as “fake grass”, a “fake grassroots” campaign could by analogy be called an “astroturf” campaign. The author cites three considerations that could indicate a popular campaign is illegitimate (p. 33):

  • Incentivized: Participants are offered incentives for their engagement or threatened with negative consequences if they do not take part.
  • Fraudulent: Participants either do not believe or do not fully comprehend the claims they are making (or, worse, campaign organizers engage in fraud by attributing claims to individuals that were never actually made). Participants take part despite these limitations because they are either incentivized or threatened….
  • Masquerading: The campaign has covert elite sponsorship and is masquerading as a movement with a broad base of non-elite support.

It’s easy for a campaign’s opponents to dismiss it out of hand as a fake effort funded by one or more elite interests, but often difficult to prove any direct involvement without information from an opinion leader recruited by campaign consultants or copies of the “generated mail”.

Conclusions

The author rounds out his coverage of public affairs consulting in support of grassroots campaigns with a series of appendices describing the data his team collected and the specific methodologies used to analyze it. These appendices bridge the gap between the author’s doctoral dissertation (from which this book is adapted) and a published work. Academic writing doesn’t always translate well to the traditional publishing world, even for established houses such as Cambridge University Press, but in this case the transition was successful.

Walker’s goal in writing Grassroots for Hire was to provide factual and statistical support for debate about the consequences of professional consultants providing advocacy support services. His analysis more than meets that challenge. Highly recommended.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.