newsonaut


The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

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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December 20, 2014


How The Interview got way more publicity than it deserved

I wonder if Seth Rogen has ever seen Mel Brooks’ 1968 classic movie, The Producers.

It’s about two guys who hatch a scheme to make money by deliberately producing a theatrical flop on Broadway. The play — even though it’s about Hitler — turns out to be a hit and they are ruined. The movie ends with the conniving pair working on more outlandish ideas, because there never seems to be a shortage of suckers.

Did Rogen have something similar in mind with The Interview, a movie he made for Sony that features another dictator who has has become a pop culture caricature?

Let’s face it, the plot of The Interview is thin. Two journalists are recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. First of all, no journalists would be competent enough to carry out such a scheme. And second, even if they succeeded, Kim would simply be replaced by the powers behind the throne.

Rogen claims to have done a lot of research about North Korea, so he probably learned that its government is predictable. Any threat, no matter how inconsequential, even if it’s just a stupid stoner movie, is met with bombastic warnings of retaliation.

Sure enough, Rogen poked them with a stick and they responded. Now the FBI says it has evidence that North Korea is behind hacking into Sony’s computers and that the country is supporting threats against movie-goers.

Suddenly, The Interview is not just another flop that would have been forgotten two weeks after its release. It’s a cause célèbre among columnists everywhere, and firmly implanted in the public psyche. Yes, even the jaded newsonaut has found it impossible to ignore.

Things may have gone too far when Sony decided not to release the movie, but it could still wind up on DVD and be distributed through online rentals. So don’t feel sorry for Rogen and Sony just yet.

And if none of this is true, if the whole thing is just a mess of ineptitude, I can still imagine Rogen sitting back and having a good laugh at absurdity of it all.

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December 13, 2014


You need an open mind if you want an app to train it

Computers don’t make us smarter, but they can make it seem that way.

Say, for example, you’re having an argument over whether Hades is the name of a place in Greek mythology or of the god who ruled it. Google can bring you the answer in seconds.

To be truly smarter, you would be able to think of the answer without relying on a search engine. That doesn’t mean your head has to be filled with trivia about myths and legends, but you should be capable of using clear thinking and logic to come up with an answer that at least has a high probability of being right.

This is where apps like Elevate come in. Advertised as a “brain trainer,” this app for iOS and Android was recently named one of the best of 2014 on Apple’s App Store. I agreed with many of the other choices for best of the year, so I thought I’d give Elevate a try for a week.

Did it make me smarter? Let’s see.

Elevate works by giving you daily exercises designed to improve skills such as precision and eloquence when speaking, brevity and spelling in writing, comprehension and agility when reading, focus and recall when listening, and conversion and estimation in math. Those are among the skills you can learn for free — but only a three a day.

If you want more skills, or if you want to practise more than three a day, you have to subscribe to a “pro” version for $4.99 a month. The cynic in me says the free stuff is just enough to make you feel you’re making progress, but not quite enough.

Anyway, my own experience was a bit uneven. Take math conversion, for example. In this game, you have to place various measurements — mixed between metric and imperial units — in order from least to most. I was terrible at this one, mainly because I couldn’t get past how pointless it is. We’re on the metric system — get over it!

In cases like this, though, you have to remind yourself that the training goes beyond immediate practicality and into general fitness. There are times in our lives when we are required to do things that seem to have little sense or purpose, but we do them anyway. Filling out a form for a government agency comes to mind.

I found myself rebelling in other exercises as well. Speed reading just seemed annoying — the app zips through a couple of sentences then tests you on your comprehension. In real life, you could just go back and re-read them for the answers.

And in some cases, I found I could just bumble my way through by making guesses. With a one-in-three chance of being correct, the odds are not that bad.

Still, I have to admit that I could use some practice with my listening skills. And once I get over some of my initial resistance, the app could be quite useful.

One area where I did well was with removing unnecessary words from sentences. You can see an example above. The obvious answer is to remove “a person who is.” But why not take out “extraordinarily” while you’re at? And really, you could hone it down to “Emily is intense.”

I have to wonder whether “training” is the right way to improve your mind. There are some things in life that you do well because you have to. If you don’t get them right, life will keep teaching you lessons until you do.

An app like Elevate adds a layer of artificiality. Do we really need to learn all these things? Of course, this could just be the rationalization of a lazy mind looking for ways to get out of work.

So I’m going to stick with Elevate for a while longer. I figure a few months will give a better idea of whether it really does work. The big test, though, will be whether I’m convinced to fork over five hard-earned dollars every month.

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November 29, 2014


Science fiction leads the way in promoting gender equality

A scene from The Walking Dead.

Last week, I wrote about the Bechdel test, which measures how well the entertainment industry promotes gender equality. It seems simple enough — in order to pass, all you need is two female characters with names talking to each other about something other than men. In my experience with TV and books, this turned out to be a rare occurrence.

Since then, I’ve had better luck. Women in several shows I’ve watched have talked to each other about many subjects.

One series that has this in abundance is The Walking Dead. Does that mean that only in a zombie-apocalypse can we imagine women taking on positions of leadership? I hope not. Another one, via my daughter, is My Little Pony. Almost all the characters are female, and they solve problems threatening their world without the help of males on a regular basis.

This brings me to a proposal I would make for beefing up the Bechdel Test. I would like to see the characters talking about how to resolve issues. Tension in drama is often created by presenting the characters with a big task that may not be possible to accomplish given time constraints or opposition from other characters. We look with admiration to those who find ways to overcome these difficult situations.

It could be that we are beginning to see major steps in this direction within the realm of science fiction. This is a genre where writers have often used a future vision or a fantasy world to help present their ideas on how society could or should be.

David Levesley has a piece in The Daily Beast that sees feminism showing up in two sci-fi TV shows: Doctor Who and The Legend of Korra.

That’s why stories that allegorize and analyze abortion or sexual assault are so interesting: they are not just about improving the representation of women, they seek to improve the discussion around them. By extrapolating these topics away from the individual and placing them as higher-stakes problems, what can seem like obtuse or gender-specific topics can be universal concerns if only because viewers are asked to engage with them in a way detached from their complex real-world implications.

As you may know, Doctor Who is an alien time traveller who morphs every couple of years so he can be played by a different actor. For some reason, though, this character — who supposedly is not of our world — only changes into white men. Would it be too unbelievable for us Earthlings if the doctor became a woman? Given that Doctor Who spends much of his time rescuing damsels in distress, it would indeed make things complicated.

Or what if the doctor turned into a black man? If you don’t think that would be a big deal, check out the discussion that ensued when the recently released trailer for the new Star Wars movie showed a black stormtrooper. Kriston Capps writes in The Atlantic:

Earlier today, it seemed like #BlackStormtrooper might actually eclipse #BlackFriday as a trending topic. That’s because the official trailer that aired Friday for the next film in the Star Wars saga— The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams and scheduled for release in December 2015 — opens on a black man wearing a stormtrooper’s uniform.

Capps makes a good case for black stormtroopers, but why does it even have to be an issue?

Well, at least we’re talking these things out, and saner heads seem to be prevailing for now. And we should keep on talking, because — due to human nature — there may never be a time when we are blind to gender or race, and see only fellow human beings.

Image: A scene from The Walking Dead. No, they weren’t talking about men. From AMC.

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November 22, 2014


Test for promoting gender equality harder than it looks

With video games are already rated for violence, Sweden is looking at taking the next logical step: rating them for sexism.

That country’s gaming industry trade organisation, Dataspelsbranchen, has received a government grant to study how this could be done. Basically, they want to let consumers know ahead of time whether a game they’re thinking of buying promotes gender equality.

One method for doing this would be to apply the Bechdel Test — there has to be at least two female characters with names, and there has to be a scene where they talk to each other about something other than men.

At first, I thought the bar was being set low, especially when my son assured by that the 10-year-old Half-Life 2 does indeed have female characters with names who work together to solve major problems. And he showed me a scene where this does happen.

But then I started applying the test to forms of entertainment that I’m more familiar with. TV and books, for example.

I’ve been binge watching Star Trek The Next Generation on Netflix in the hope of finding an episode that I haven’t seen before. So while viewing an episode where the story centres on the doctor, a female named Beverly Crusher, falling in love with an alien, I kept the Bechdel Test in mind. As it turns out, there are two scenes where she and another female character, a counsellor named Deanna Troi, have long conversations. Unfortunately, they talk almost exclusively about men.

OK, so that show was considered progressive for the time it was made, in the 1980s. Surely we’ve made progress in the intervening 30 years. How about a series that’s being made right now?

I’ve worked in a few newsrooms, and found my female colleagues to be generally feisty and independent, so I figured applying the Bechdel Test to a TV show called The Newsroom would be a cinch.

I watched the latest episode, featuring several strong female characters, going through trials and tribulations associated with the news industry. And while they do all have names, and they do all exhibit fortitude and resilience, not once was there a scene where two or more of them were alone having a conversation.

Could it be that Aaron Sorkin simply can’t imagine what women would talk about if they were by themselves?

So how about books? Authors don’t have to hire actors, so they can create any kind of characters they want.

I’m just about finished reading Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, which was published in 2005. As it turns out, the main character is a 32-year-old woman. But 90 per cent of the rest of the characters are men. The few female characters seldom talk to each other about anything of substance. The closest thing to any kind of depth is in an email exchange with a female friend, but it’s about — you guessed it — a former boyfriend. She has memories of exchanges with a female psychologist, but those centre on her relationship with her father.

Now that I’m aware of this test, I’m seeing entertainment in a whole new light. Our society has come a long way in accepting, and even celebrating, diversity. But we still have many challenges ahead of us.

Image: Beverly Crusher and her alien amour (from Wikipedia).

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November 15, 2014


Why landing a space vehicle on a comet is such an amazing achievement

To get a true appreciation for the scientific feat accomplished with the landing of a space vehicle on a comet, you have to wrap your mind around two astonishing facts — the vastness of the space between here and there, and tininess of the comet itself.

I found two websites that a great job of this.

The first, created by Josh Worth, is called If the Moon Were Only One Pixel: A Tediously Accurate Scale Model of the Solar System. Be prepared to do a lot of horizontal scrolling without much to see but a few minuscule dots in a sea of black. Luckily, the tedium is broken up with the occasional witty observation.

Bearing in mind that the moon is only one pixel in Worth’s model, it would still dwarf Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The moon is 3,475 kilometres in diameter while the comet is a mere four kilometres across. To put it in terms that Star Trek fans would understand, it’s not much bigger than a Federation Space Dock.

What would that look like? As it turns out, Christopher Becke, a high school physics teacher, has created graphics (like the one above) showing not only Star Trek comparisons, but also other science fiction and more reality-based comparisons. The comet could, for example, fit in Manhattan.

One way to think of it would be to imagine two specks of sand a mile apart with nothing in between them. Some microbes on one speck somehow figure out that the other speck exists and fire off a microbe-sized vehicle to hit the other speck. Complicating matters, the two specks are in constant motion at different rates of speed.

And of course there’s that time thing. If you shoot an arrow from a bow, you’ll generally know within seconds whether you have hit your target. But with the comet, scientists had to wait 10 years before knowing whether they reached their goal. And even then they didn’t exactly hit it — they came really close and soft-landed Philae on the surface. Remember when the new version of Battlestar Galactica started up on TV? That’s when this mission began.

Speaking of time, we should also be aware of old the comet is. The pictures transmitted back to Earth may be showing leftover rocks dating from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. How old is that? According to the Cosmic Calendar, if you compressed the history of the universe (13.8 billion years) into a year-long calendar, the solar system would have shown up on Aug. 31. Our age of modern science wouldn’t appear up until Dec. 31 at one second before midnight.

As if the photos posted by the European Space Agency on Flickr weren’t breath-taking enough, the story behind how they came to be makes them all the more remarkable.

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