The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

February 27, 2015

We are living in the Age of Spock

The death of Leonard Nimoy is a reminder that the era of the original Star Trek, and its idealistic vision of the future, is sliding ever further away.

In one episode, The City on the Edge of Forever, Captain Kirk travelled back in time to the Depression era of 1930 and told a character played by Joan Collins that 100 years from then Earth would begin a transition to peace and unity.

“Let me help. A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over I love you.”

We have only 15 years left before that prediction can come true, but as we settle into never ending armed conflict, there are few who would believe in it.

As it turns out, in order for the future to unfold as it should, the Collins character, a pacifist named Edith Keeler, must die. And Kirk, even though he is in love with her, must be the one to allow this to happen.

“But she was right,” Kirk says. “Peace was the way.”

With cold-hearted logic, Spock replies: “She was right, but at the wrong time.”

And later: “Jim, Edith Keeler must die.”

In the end, Kirk follows Spock’s advice and stops Dr. McCoy from pushing Keeler out of the way of the car that strikes and kills her.

McCoy is stunned.

“You deliberately stopped me, Jim. I could have saved her. Do you know what you just did?”

It is Spock who answers: “He knows, Doctor. He knows.”

It seems we are now living in a age of Spock — where we have set aside idealism so we can deal with the reality of economic challenges and terrorist threats.

If the Star Trek crew had landed on a planet where a group was beheading innocent people in videos, how would they have reacted? They might have negotiated a truce that allowed the group its own little country in return for living in peace with the rest of the world. Bombing the hell out of them would not have been a option.

Here in the real world, bombing the hell out of them is the only option.

Maybe we’re just going through a necessary phase, where we make sacrifices in the hope that eventually things will get better. We seem all too willing to forego our freedoms and privacy for anti-terror legislation that we’re told will protect us.

It could be that we suppose these are temporary measures and that we can one day regain what was lost. We will always believe in peace, but it will never be the right time.

Even Spock, for all his logic, would never have wished that.

Top image: Joan Collins as Edith Keeler and Willliam Shatner as Captain Kirk in The City on the Edge of Forever, from the original Star Trek series.

Middle image: Leonard Nimoy as Spock.


February 21, 2015

There are limits to Internet usage, and you may have to pay for exceeding them

If you thought you could save money by cutting the cable and switching to Netflix, there’s bad news — Telus has figured out a way to grab some of that money back.

You may be surprised to learn that your Internet plan has something called a bandwidth limit. This means you’re only allowed to download and upload so much stuff each month. The more you pay, the more you’re allowed.

If you’ve never heard of such a thing, it’s probably because even though bandwidth limits exist, they are seldom enforced. Generally speaking, Internet service providers turn a blind eye if you go a few gigabytes over the limit.

But Telus has decided to change that. If you go over the limit in your plan, they will charge you $5 for a “bucket” of 50GB. After that, the buckets cost $10 each to a maximum of $75.

They say that most people won’t be affected because they are already on an appropriate plan that keeps them safely below the limit. But looking at the data plans available from Telus, I’m not so sure.

Telus Internet 6, also known as High Speed, High Speed Enhanced and High Speed Extreme, has a monthly limit of 100 GB. According to this helpful explainer from Shaw, you can burn through 42 GB by watching just three two-hour HD movies a week on Netflix. For a cable cutter, this wouldn’t be at all unreasonable.

The Vancouver Sun notes that gamers will also be affected.

The new charge means online gamers will need to keep a close eye on their data usage. Most of the downloadable games for the new generation of consoles — Xbox One and PlayStation 4 — are in excess of 25 GB each.

As you can imagine, some Telus customers are not happy. According to the CBC, some are saying the new charges violate the concept of net neutrality.

They point out that watching Optik TV does not count as data even though it streams through the same fibre optic network as the Internet.

With net neutrality, all data should be treated equally, and customers should not be charged more for certain types of data. Telus could be seen as violating this principle by charging more for Netflix usage but not for its own Optik TV service.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has guidelines that side with net neutrality, but generally leaves it up to consumers to complain before taking action.

All eyes are now on other Internet service providers. Will they go for a boost in revenue by following the lead of Telus? Or will they differentiate themselves as the good guys who don’t charge more — potentially bringing in customers who have switched away from Telus?

Of course, if the switchers turn out to be a bunch of bandwidth hogs, as Telus claims, they may not exactly be welcome.

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February 14, 2015

Freedom from ads poses a new challenge for marketing types

Remember the old song Born Free? One of the lines goes like this: “Born free to follow your heart.”

Schlocky, yes, but I can’t help think of it as I move toward what is increasingly an ad-free existence. Because without advertising, I’m free to follow my own desires — as opposed to being manipulated by advertisers.

As usual, the Internet is to blame. Newspapers are overflowing with ads, but I don’t read them any more so that’s one source gone. I cut the cable and learned to be happy with Netflix, so I no longer have batches of TV ads coming at me every 10 minutes. For music, I find that apps like Songza have genres for every taste and occasion, so I no longer have to listen to pitches that ruin the mood on radio.

The Internet itself has ads, of course, but that same technology also provides ways of avoiding them. You can get ad blocking extensions for your web browser. On my iPhone, an RSS app called Reeder includes a function called Readability. Tap the icon and you get the full article in plain, ad-free text. Twitter now has advertising, but only if you use their site or app. Use a third-party app like Tweetbot and they’re gone. There are lots of tricks like this — you’ve probably picked up a few yourself.

This is great for people like me, but bad for marketing types who want us to buy their service or product. For them I have two words: “Super Bowl.” The ads during the NFL championship are so popular that people who aren’t interested in football will watch the game just to see them. Viewers vote the next day on which were the best.

So my question is this: why not make advertising this compelling year-round? I suppose it might seem less special and lose some of its impact. It would also cost more. Still, if you have ads that people actually enjoy watching, you’ve got to be further ahead.

In fact, I can imagine a time when advertising becomes a separate entity. It would no longer interrupt TV shows or squeeze newspaper articles into tiny spaces. The ads would have their own TV stations, their own publications, their own apps. People would be drawn to them by the creativity that goes into them. This happens to a certain extent now, but there may come a time when it’s expected and even appreciated.

I see a glimmer of this trend with new websites like Apple World Today. They’re asking readers to support them with a system called Patreon. Their goal is to have readers sign up as patrons so they won’t need ads.

Here’s how they put it:

We really want to avoid traditional web advertising like the plague. We will have direct sponsorships and deals, but no obtrusive and … dare we say it … annoying ads for mortgage help or feminine hygiene products. However, that’s what we may have resort to if you, gentle reader, don’t step up to the plate.

As I write this, they have 185 patrons paying $1,145.49 a month. That’s a long way from the $9,000 a month they have set as their goal, but these are still early days.

Meanwhile, I can hear the lyrics to Born Free swelling up again:

Ad-free and life is worth living
But only worth living
’Cause you’re ad-free

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February 7, 2015

When creating empathy, technology just comes along for the ride

Last week I talked about how Bill Gates, the entrepreneur and philanthropist, would like to see technology used more creatively to encourage empathy between and rich and poor parts of the world.

Gates may be looking at this problem from the wrong angle. Technology is a set of tools at our disposal — used as needed, not as an end in itself.

The first thing we should look at is empathy itself, because we already know how that works. The people we care about are those closest to us — family, friends, neighbours, co-workers. We develop feelings for almost anyone we are in regular contact with. Admittedly, they are not always positive feelings, but that’s a different story.

But what about people who are far away? It gets harder to keep in touch with friends and family when there is distance involved, but it’s certainly possible with some effort.

In Kamloops, we do this on an institutional level in our sister city relationship with Uji, Japan. Through cultural exchanges, we have come to know each other better. And I’m willing to bet that if Uji were to suffer some misfortune, people in Kamloops would feel concerned and want to help out.

Of course, Uji is in a rich country with plenty of resources at hand if it were to suffer some sort of disaster. And day-to-day, the residents there likely enjoy a good quality of life.

But what if Kamloops were to establish a sister city relationship with a city in, for example, Haiti? The relationship would no doubt be different as that city’s challenges came to light. As we got to know them better, we would feel compelled to help with things like ensuring there is clean drinking water or school supplies for the children.

If sister city status became official, then City Hall, the school district and the hospital might set aside a small part of their budgets toward improving services in the Haitian city. Or they might facilitate volunteer efforts.

What would we get out of it? Helping others is a good way to boost morale, but beyond that there may be opportunities for education, skills training and business.

And what about technology? We might wind up using old-fashioned technology, such as an exchange of letters between school children. More probably, communication would take the form of email exchanges, a Facebook page, Skype calls or videos posted to YouTube. That’s something we would figure out as we go along — moulding technology to overcome obstacles.

The tough part would be finding a sister city. I thought of Haiti because it is one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s located in the Caribbean Sea, which is close to North America. The main language is French, which is familiar to many Canadians.

But it could just as easily be some other city. And who knows? If we put together a good plan, maybe Bill Gates will pitch in.


January 31, 2015

Bill Gates is right about 'missing creativity' in use of technology to create empathy

As an Internet forum, it’s hard to take Reddit seriously. As I write this, one of the top posts is a picture of a hamster poking its head out of a little wooden house and appearing to wave hello. (Go ahead and look, but come back because I have a point to make.)

Where Reddit really shines is with a regular feature called Ask Me Anything. Some genuinely important and interesting people volunteer to answer questions from the public, including the president of the United States.

Bill Gates, the philanthropist and founder of Microsoft, was back for his third AMA on Thursday. No doubt he keeps coming back because he knows it’s a good way to connect with the public about his work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s a cause definitely worth supporting, but Gates noted a problem that I’m sure is common to many charitable organizations.

Here’s the question, typical of the breezy Reddit style:

Hi bill! First off, thanks for being an awesome human being!!! But onto my question: What innovation has been brought to you but sadly never worked out for what ever reason, but you really wanted it to work? Thanks! And keep being awesome!

And the answer:

So far we have not (been) able to use technology to connect people to the needs of the poorest in countries that are far away to tap into their empathy. I think this can be done but it needs some missing creativity.

Indeed, this is a conundrum that many journalists have wrestled with. How do you make people care about the troubles of their fellow human beings — whether they live in the same community or in a village half way around the world?

You can’t overdo it, because people will get tired of the whole thing and tune it out. There is even a term for this: compassion fatigue. In fact, journalists are sometimes blamed for creating the situation by flooding us with images and stories of suffering and crisis. Journalists themselves fall victim to this syndrome when they become cynical and use expressions such as “sob story” or “disease of the week.”

It’s tempting to point the finger at modern technology for making the saturation of tragic news possible, but this is a quandary that was recognized even in George Orwell’s time.

In response to Gates’ comment on Reddit, another person posted a quote from Orwell that was published in 1947 — referring to the aftershocks of the Second World War. Here it is in part:

Tales of starvation, ruined cities, concentration camps, mass deportations, homeless refugees, persecuted Jews — all this is received with a sort of incurious surprise, as though such things had never been heard of but at the same time were not particularly interesting. The now-familiar photographs of skeleton-like children make very little impression. As time goes on and the horrors pile up, the mind seems to secrete a sort of self-protecting ignorance which needs a harder and harder shock to pierce it, just as the body will become immunised to a drug and require bigger and bigger doses.

Part of the problem is that even if we do allow ourselves to think about such things, a sense of hopelessness can sink in because there is little we can do about them. When Ebola broke out in West Africa, many people seemed more concerned about stopping its spread to North America than about those who were actually afflicted with the disease. It might seem like the height of selfishness, but in a way it is understandable. Eradicating a disease in a far-off land is really hard and may not be possible. Stopping Ebola victims from entering Canada seems a lot more do-able, and of more immediate benefit.

I agree with Gates that there is some “missing creativity” when it comes to using technology to create caring connections between citizens of rich and poor countries. Anyone have some ideas?

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January 24, 2015

Google now the most trusted source of news, even though it doesn't produce any

When you think of trusted sources of news, what comes to mind? If you thought of a daily newspaper or a major TV network, then you may be hopelessly old fashioned.

As reported by Search Engine Land, a survey by the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that search engines are now the most trusted source of news. That’s right — many people would rather trust Google than the Globe and Mail.

The flaw here is obvious. Google, Bing and Yahoo don’t have reporters or editors or photographers. Their employees are a bunch of computer scientists.

When people look to a search engine for news, what they’re really doing is seeking out a variety of real news sources and picking one of them. The source they often choose is the website of a newspaper or TV station that actually does have reporters, editors and photographers.

So there is hope. When people say they trust Google, what they may be saying is that they trust it to find trustworthy sources.

Even so, the fact that an increasing number of people are turning to search engines is still bad news for traditional media. After all, advertisers follow eyeballs, and that means Google is a competitor.

The struggling Postmedia newspaper chain is slashing costs and buying up other papers in a bid to create an economy of scale that will lure ad dollars from Google and Facebook. Toronto Star business columnist David Olive writes that citizens have a stake in what happens to Postmedia:

Postmedia’s papers with their depopulated newsrooms run the risk of becoming irrelevant as a bulwark of democracy. Which might not matter all that much except that so many Canadians still rely on them. There’s no obvious alternative to, say, the Edmonton Journal, for authoritative local news about Canada’s “Gateway to the North” and about the world.

The whole column is worth reading. Needless to say, Olive is skeptical about Postmedia’s prospects.

And while this should be disturbing to those of us who feel a well-informed citizenry is important to the proper functioning of a democracy, it should also be alarming to the Internet giants largely responsible for this state of affairs. After all, Google and Facebook need trustworthy news sources to keep their advertisers and readers happy. They may find that they are killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Facebook executives recognize this and have pitched solutions to help the news industry. One would be to simply publish everything straight to Facebook and forget about having your own website — otherwise known as selling your soul to the devil.

Google and Facebook may be considered trustworthy by the people who use them. But for those who actually produce the news, there is very little trust.

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January 17, 2015

A ring of satellites will cover Earth — and Mars — with Internet

Anyone living in a remote area, wondering if they will ever have good Internet service, should get to know Elon Musk. He has a plan that would not only bring speed-of-light Internet to every corner of the world, but also to colonies on Mars.

Details are a little sketchy at this point, but the plan involves satellites and $20 billion.

If you’ve never heard of Musk, you’re probably thinking this is a pipe dream. If you know anything at all about him, you’re thinking it’s only a matter of time before he makes it happen.

Musk made his fortune with PayPal and has since moved on to start up Tesla Motors, which has made a success of designing, manufacturing and selling electric cars. He heads a space transport services company called SpaceX, which is making rockets to supply the International Space Station. And he’s working on a high-speed transportation system known as the Hyperloop, which would allow passengers to make the 570-kilometre trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes.

The Canadian-American entrepreneur, born in South Africa, has a way of turning science fiction into reality.

He reminds me of another man who dreams big — English businessman Richard Branson, who also believes in satellite Internet.

The Los Angeles Times has a good explanation of how the idea would work. Much hinges on cutting edge technology that is making satellites small enough that they can be built for about $350,000 each on an assembly line. That would be a big saving from the current process where satellites cost millions of dollars, weigh tons and take several years to build.

Branson is investing in a venture called OneWeb Ltd., which plans worldwide Internet service that would use 648 of these small satellites. Musk has the same idea, with a proposal to create what he calls micro-satellites. He hasn’t announced any involvement with OneWeb, but he has already shown that he can greatly reduce the cost of a rocket. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the benefits of Musk and OneWeb working together.

According to the L.A. Times:

More than half of the world’s population lacks Internet access, according to the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations. And the success of a satellite venture providing Internet access at a fraction of the price would have broad implications, especially for the poor living in remote locations.

Science fiction sometimes brings us utopian visions of the future where everyone in the world lives in luxury. As it stands, this would be impossible. There simply aren’t enough resources.

But there is no shortage of innovation. It’s still possible to take our current resources and use them more efficiently so that everyone benefits. A powerful Internet reaching every nook and cranny of the globe won’t produce a world of opulence, but it would certainly level the communications playing field.

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January 10, 2015

Threats to free speech don't have to come from the barrel of a gun

The murders of 12 people at Charlie Hebdo in Paris were a sick attempt at curbing free speech. They failed dismally because that publication, which was on the verge of going out of business, is now more popular than ever.

The outpouring of support from the public is heartening for journalists everywhere because they see themselves defenders of an ideal that is at the heart of a properly functioning democracy — freedom.

We in Kamloops are lucky to live in one of the safest cities of the one of the safest countries in the world. Violence, or even the threat of violence, is not something journalists here have to worry about.

There are a few exceptions. Photographers have been threatened by people at the scene of an accident who don’t want pictures taken. I was once threatened by a commenter on the old Kamloops Daily News website. I’m fairly certain that these people were simply overwrought and would never have actually harmed anyone. Still, you never know.

The real threat to a free press in Kamloops comes from the soft power wielded by those with money and power.

Perhaps the best-known case of this was when Kamloops Blazers owner Tom Gaglardi tried to dictate how The Daily News covered the team’s games. He claimed the sports editor at the time, Gregg Drinnan, was too negative. Likely, he feared negativity would hurt ticket sales.

I’m proud that The Daily News stood up to this pressure and Drinnan was allowed to continue writing about the Blazers as he saw fit. I’m not so proud of the readers who chimed in their support for Gaglardi — as if a person’s style of writing were reason enough to suppress it.

People sometimes accuse reporters whose stories they don’t like of “just trying to sell papers.” The truth is that newsstand sales typically make up only a small portion of newspaper revenue. Closer to the mark would be an accusation that they are trying to kowtow to advertisers. That actually does happen.

Ask yourself when was the last time you saw an editorial or column criticizing the chamber of commerce or some other business group. It would take a very brave publisher to allow this, because the members of those groups are advertisers and they have a weapon that is more powerful than guns — the threat of pulling their ads.

This might seem like small potatoes compared with what happened in France. Just be aware that pressures on free speech are everywhere. It’s a matter of degree.

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January 2, 2015

When did "bae" become a word, and why wasn't I informed?

At some point when I wasn’t looking, people started using the word “bae” as a term of affection. In fact, this word is now used so often that both Lake Superior State University and Time magazine have suggested that it be banned.

Apparently, it’s got to the point where people use the word (it stands for “before anyone else”) to describe their ramen noodles.

My first reaction was wonderment that I could be so out of touch with popular culture that I had never before encountered a word that has been abused to the point of becoming a candidate for banishment. And anyway, it doesn’t really sound that bad. If Sonny and Cher had sung “I got you, bae,” the tune would still have been a hit.

Another one on the LSSU list that puzzled me was “cra-cra” — as in crazy. Again, I’d never heard of it, but is it really any worse that “coo-coo”? That’s one that could do with a comeback, along with the accompanying circling of an ear with a finger while pointing with the other hand at the supposedly crazy person.

The Time list, which came out in November, comes with an editor’s note apologizing for inclusion of the word “feminist.” Apparently, irate readers failed to see the nuance in this description:

feminist: You have nothing against feminism itself, but when did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party? Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade.

“Feminism” is one of those words that make us think. For that reason, its clumsy misuse is no reason to ban it. There seems to be an idea that certain issues, such as equality for women, can be dealt with and then we can all move on.

What we really need is for Time and other news sites to discuss these ideas in a more responsible way. Of course, we’re going to get fed up with a word if it’s used mainly in connection with celebrity bumpf.

That said, I do have my own candidate for banishment that didn’t make either list. That would be “awesome.” This word is used so commonly that it has lost all meaning. Generally, it’s meant to be positive and encouraging, but it can also can be lazy. If you want to say something good, but don’t want to actually put thought into what you’re saying, just throw out an “awesome.”

When it comes down to it, though, this word is harmless and will eventually go away by itself.

A phrase that really needs to be terminated, because it actually has a bearing on how we treat our fellow human beings, is “enhanced interrogation.” As noted in a comment on the LSSU site, this is “a shameful euphemism for torture.” Stop it now.

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December 26, 2014

The Internet has a way of getting us to believe the unbelievable

As Internet hoaxes go, the woman who claimed to have three breasts was brilliant.

It was crazy enough that you couldn’t help but be curious, but not so crazy that it was totally inconceivable.

Alisha Hessler declared, back in September, that she spent $20,000 on surgery and consulted dozens of doctors in the process.

“I got it because I wanted to make myself unattractive to men. Because I don’t want to date anymore,” she told a radio station.

That’s an interesting take, given that the three-breasted mutant prostitute in 1990’s Total Recall was considered to be extra-sexy. The scene where she flashes her wares was reprised in the 2012 remake.

Anyway, Hessler — also known as Jasmine Tridevil — hoped her ploy would land a reality TV show, which doesn’t seem so far-fetched these days. And the idea of getting an extra implant? Well, there’s all kinds of surgery going on that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.

So it was almost disappointing when the third boob turned out to be no more real than the bumps on Worf’s head. Still, we may not have heard the last of Ms. Hessler. She is apparently pursuing a singing career.

Hessler’s ruse has the dubious honour of being named the number one hoax of 2014 by the Washington Post. The 15-item list includes a number of gems, including another of my favourites — just for the sheer audacity of it — the parents who claimed they were kicked out of a KFC restaurant in Mississippi because the disfigured face of their young daughter was bothering the other patrons.

It turns out they weren’t even in the restaurant at the time they claimed to be. On the other hand, their daughter’s face really had been disfigured when she was mauled by pit bulls. Kind-hearted people overlooked the deceit of the girl’s parents and donated more than $100,000 for restorative surgery.

Hoaxes seem to work best when they align with our sometimes-warped preconceptions of the way the world really is. It’s not that much of a stretch to believe reality TV shows have got so out of hand that there might be one in the works about a woman with three breasts.

And when it comes to children, our society (thankfully) has an innate desire to rush to their defence wherever there is perceived injustice.

Expect more Internet hoaxes in 2015 as the line between truth and fiction continues to blur. You can keep on top of them by visiting Emergent — a website devoted to making sure that line doesn’t get too blurry.

Even now, there are stories circulating about a passenger being escorted off an American Airlines flight after he became angry over being repeatedly wished a Merry Christmas by the crew. It fits in nicely with the “war on Christmas” theme that gets people riled up, but there is no evidence to support it other than an unsourced brief in the New York Post.

And is it any stranger than the story about the guy who wound up in the hospital after winning an egg nog chugging contest in 12 seconds? That one was indeed true.

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