The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

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.


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.


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.


November 8, 2014

Twitter alliance takes aim at harassment of women

Pew survey

With the increasing number of reports of high-profile cases of harassment in social media, it might be tempting to believe that we humans are losing our capacity for civility.

I’m not so sure that’s true. Technology provides opportunity for change, but it is not the change itself. There has always been a certain number of jerks among us, but a medium such as Twitter provides them with the opportunity to band together from around the globe and concentrate their efforts.

I mention Twitter, because it has become the tool of choice for those who can’t stand to see an opinion that differs from their own and hope that by making threats or hurling invective they will prevent that view from ever being voiced again.

In some cases, this strategy likely works. For example, I hesitate to even mention the Twitter hashtag gamergate for fear of getting unwanted reaction from the many people who take this controversy seriously. If you’re not familiar with #gamergate, search the hashtag. You might not find this enlightening because no one seems to be able to agree on what exactly the controversy is about, except that it involves video games.

Most will agree, though, that many hateful words have been exchanged, and many have been directed toward a few select victims. In other words, harassment abounds.

Harassment of this type is disproportionately directed toward women, as this survey by Pew Research shows. According to the summary:

Young women, those 18-24, experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26 per cent of these young women have been stalked online, and 25 per cent were the target of online sexual harassment. In addition, they do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general.

In the past, there has been plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest this is the case, but a survey like this makes the problem a lot harder to ignore.

Twitter has a function that allows users to report abuse, but the company has now taken a big step forward by collaborating with a group known as WAM! Women, Action & the Media.

WAM! is running a pilot project to support all Twitter users experiencing gendered harassment and abuse on the platform, including abuse that intersects with racial, lgbt and other kinds of oppression users face on Twitter.

All you have to do is fill out a form.

I had never heard of WAM! before, but browsing their website shows they are about social change. Here is their vision:

Gender equity in media access, representation, employment and ownership — and a world in which a just media is considered essential to a just society.

While based in the U.S., the group has a chapter in Vancouver.

It remains to be seen whether this alliance between Twitter and WAM! will bring about tangible results, but I have my fingers crossed that it will.

For me it’s a question of free speech. People should be allowed to speak their minds without fear of being shouted down by those who disagree with them. It’s difficult not to be cowed into silence when a group of unknown people is threatening to harm you. Twitter, if it is to survive, must build a reputation for being a forum of free discourse — not a forum where only the loudest, most obnoxious voices are heard.


November 1, 2014

Like it or not, Facebook owns the future

Mark Zuckerbertg

When Jian Ghomeshi was fired by the CBC, he turned to the most powerful medium of communication in the world to put out his side of the story.

Yes, I’m talking about Facebook.

Unfortunately for Ghomeshi, this was one of the few smart things he’s done recently. But that doesn’t take away from the force to be reckoned with that Facebook has become.

With more than a billion users and billions of dollars in profits, it is the envy of publishers great and small — whether in print or online. They gaze in awe of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s endless ability to rake in massive amounts of advertising money while all they can hope for is a few crumbs from the table.

From the New York Times to Buzzfeed, editors spend their days trying to outguess the algorithms that push some stories to the top of Facebook feeds while others languish in obscurity. It can make the difference between getting a few clicks on a story and the swarm that comes when a post goes viral.

Zuckerberg loves having news stories on Facebook and he’s all too happy to play — er, help — publishers. So he and his minions have come up with what may be the ideal solution: ditch your website and publish entirely on Facebook.

David Carr of the New York Times outlines how this complete capitulation would work:

One possibility it mentioned was for publishers to simply send pages to Facebook that would live inside the social network’s mobile app and be hosted by its servers; that way, they would load quickly with ads that Facebook sells. The revenue would be shared.

He adds: “Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.”

But what a kingdom! In third-quarter earnings results reported recently, the company posted $3.2 billion in revenue. Nearly $2 billion of that came from mobile advertising. Facebook has grown to more than 1.3 billion monthly active users.

And there’s more to come. Marcus Wohlsen, at Wired, foresees a world in which Facebook controls pretty much everything online.

Along with the news, video is also a big priority for the company. There are plans to compete with YouTube and one deal has already been made for a series of short films based on the Twilight franchise.

I’ve talked about Oculus Rift before, and I still see a big future for this artificial reality technology. Facebook bought it for $2 billion, but will wind up making billions in profits once this catches on with the public.

As Wohlsen points out, Zuckerberg isn’t interested in anything unless it numbers in the billions, whether it be users or dollars.

What do I think about a future for the news and entertainment where Facebook is busy behind the scenes pulling strings? Frankly, I find a bit creepy — although not nearly as creepy as Ghomeshi’s sexual preferences.

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October 25, 2014

CBC's careful reporting a reflection of Canadian values

CBC coverage of breaking news out of Ottawa on Wednesday was praised by many, including media critics in the U.S. who found it a refreshing change from the reckless methods used by American networks in similar situations.

Anchor Peter Mansbridge steadfastly stuck to the facts, refused to speculate, and nuanced updates by informing us of the reliability of their source. He did not jump to conclusions. He did not get ahead of himself. And in doing so provided a great service to our nation at a time of crisis.

The U.S. magazine Mother Jones had this to say:

. . . news of the shootings in Ottawa unfolded live on the CBC much like they do here in the United States: lots of sketchy details, conflicting reports, unreliable witnesses, and a thick fog of confusion. All of that was familiar. What was less familiar was how Mansbridge and his team managed that confusion, conveying a concise and fact-based version of fast-moving events to viewers across Canada and the world.

Media Bistro described it this way:

Mansbridge, in sharp contrast to the frenetic, breathless delivery we’ve come to expect from American news anchors in times of breaking news (including stories of far less significance than the attacks in Canada), was thoughtful, took his time, and seemed at times to pause, and to consider his words before speaking. Just. Imagine. That.

Thinking about the differences in style between the U.S. and Canada, the first thing that came to mind was ratings. The people who run U.S. networks are under enormous pressure to boost their ratings. For them, a crisis like this is heaven-sent: they can pull out all the stops.

This attitude works if you don’t look past tomorrow, and believe that your competitors will follow along. And, to be fair, the CBC — as a broadcaster subsidized by the public — does not feel the same compulsion to be obsessed with ratings and the ad dollars that come along with them.

Even so, you would think that there is at least some segment of the American audience large enough that it would turn to and reward a more thoughtful approach to the news. No one cares or remembers who was first with breaking news. They just want to know what’s happening — what’s really happening. In fact, people are more likely to remember who made the gaffe.

This applies even on a local scale. I wince every time I see a news organization retweet something reported from a police scanner, because this is not a reliable source. The chatter we hear on scanners is of first responders communicating so they can quickly get to the scene of an emergency and deal with it. They sometimes get things wrong, such as the location or how many people are hurt. But they don’t issue corrections — they just go and figure things out when they get there.

You can bet CBC reporters were listening to police scanners as well, hoping to pick up tidbits that might help them understand what was going on. But as Mansbridge demonstrated, they used these sources for tips to be investigated and confirmed, not as news itself. In the U.S,, and sometimes in Canada, when news outlets are scared to death of not matching competitors, reports from the scanner or other unreliable sources are considered fair game.

In fact, the CBC did get scooped, but so what?. As Media Bistro put it:

CBC News was soundly beaten by various journalists on Twitter with word the War Memorial soldier had died, but when time came for Mansbridge to bring this sad fact into his coverage, he warned he had “bad news” to report, and then very carefully explained how CBC came to believe this information was correct.

The events in Ottawa, and before that in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., have brought forth many emotions. Perhaps one of the most enduring will be that of pride in ourselves as a nation for not allowing nutcase gunmen to shake our core values about we react to their threats.

Image credit: CBC

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October 18, 2014

Sorry, folks: turns out crabzilla doesn't exist after all

Have you heard? The Nigerian government has a ceasefire deal with Boko Haram rebels that includes the release of hundreds of abducted schoolgirls.

Or have they? It depends on the source. Some news outlets would have you believe it’s a done deal, while others are more skeptical.

That’s the nature of the Internet. With so many sources for the news, it’s hard sometimes to know what to believe.

For really wild rumours, there is no better site than Snopes for separating the wheat from the chaff.

In recent days, the site has been feasting on the hysteria surrounding Ebola since a few cases cropped up in the U.S.

Among the Ebola urban legends they’ve debunked:

  • A Texas town was quarantined because a family of five tested positive for ebola.
  • Ebola can now be spread by airborne transmission.
  • Ebola victims have returned to life.

But what about stories like the one about the kidnapped schoolgirls? That one at least seems plausible.

To check on those stories, you can now turn to Emergent, a site created by Craig Silverman, who first gained fame by holding newspapers to account with Regret the Error.

(Coincidentally, the latest Regret the Error post is titled Top 5 falsehoods about Ebola.)

Over at Emergent, we learn that the Boko Haram story has been classified at Unverified. Only three sources are for the claim, while another 13 are playing it safe by observing the situation.

I’d say this is a story we can believe when we actually see pictures of the girls being welcomed home by their families.

In many cases, stories are considered Unverified — the claim, for example, that ISIS fighters are being trained to fly captured fighter jets. Or the claim that ISIS has executed two of its own fighters.

Both these claims certainly seem like they could be true. But as it stands, we simply don’t know for sure.

Some stories at Emergent, such as the one about the picture of a 50-foot crab, have been confirmed false.

You might wonder why anyone would believe such an outlandish story in the first place. But admit it: wouldn’t it be cool if crabzilla really did exist? And it’s kinda fun to read about it.

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October 11, 2014

When readers pay, journalism is the winner

The people have spoken loud and clear. They want their news on the Internet, but they don’t want to have to pay for it.

Sites like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed have responded by creating advertising vehicles thinly disguised in a veneer of journalism. But the clickbait journalism needed to bring in advertising revenue winds up lowering the bar and doing little for anyone hoping to become an informed citizen.

At the heart of two recent experiments is a complete ban on advertising in favour of reader support. The Dish, run by U.S. blogger Andrew Sullivan, and De Correspondent, created by a Dutch crowdfunding campaign, both promise substance in their reports, along with independence from advertising.

The Dish, which claims to be both “biased and balanced,” continues to bring in revenue of close to $1 million a year — all of it from about 30,000 subscribers, according to the publisher’s latest report.

Traffic to the site, on the other hand, can vary widely from month to month. Publishers of ad-driven sites would be worried about even a small drop in pageviews, but The Dish can ride them out, knowing that the business will be sustained by a strong base of subscribers.

The silver lining to these ups and downs in traffic is that they do not really have an impact on our finances — because, unlike almost everyone else in online journalism, we’re completely subscription based. That guides us away from the sirens of clickbait, and allows us to provide content that we think matters — even though we know it won’t rack up pageviews.

Meanwhile, back in November 2013, a group of Dutch journalists raised $1.7 million in a crowd funding campaign to create a platform that “focuses on background, analysis, investigative reporting, and the kinds of stories that tend to escape the radar of mainstream media because they do not conform to what is normally understood to be ‘news.’”

In other words, the opposite of popular ad-supported sites.

Like Sullivan, they keep their readers up to date on how the site is doing financially. In fact, they see explanations of how they spend their members’ money to be one of the keys to their success. Their latest report says the publication now has a sustainable membership of 28,000 members who pay €60 ($76 ) a year.

Among their innovations is the strategy of reaching out to the people who “like” them on Facebook. They figure those people are good prospects for memberships, and in many cases this turns out to be true.

The Internet has become so dominated by the likes of Google and Facebook — and their attempts to ram ads down our throats — that it’s hard to imagine even a small corner of it free of hucksterism.

Of all the business models I’ve seen for online journalism, the concept of readers paying to keep out ads is the most promising. Journalists working at these sites can exercise independence and respond to the needs of their readers — even build a relationship with them. And editors won’t have to worry about finding pictures of kittens to suck people into their site, only to leave them with the empty feeling that they’ve once again wasted their time.

OK, so De Correspondent did post one picture of a kitten. (See above.) But it was a good one, and they only did it once.

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