newsonaut


The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

March 21, 2015


New services for bloggers abound but I'm sticking with my tried and true

In case you missed it, blogging is back.

For a while there, blogs had a bad reputation. Many people were writing online diaries with posts that even their moms didn’t really care about.

Bloggers are now being encouraged to write about things that might actually be of interest to the wider world. Anyone wanting to promote their company, for example, is being told to post articles that are genuinely useful to readers — not self-serving bumpf.

And it’s good advice. You’ll make a lot more friends (i.e. customers) by showing yourself to be the real deal.

The bellwether for blogging is WordPress. This open source platform makes it super easy to sign up, choose a theme and start writing. In 2013, founder Matt Mullenweg claimed that WordPress had 46 million downloads and powered 18.9 per cent of the web.

Those numbers have no doubt grown since then.

Meanwhile, an up-and-coming blogging platform called Medium promises a collection of longer, more thoughtful posts, presented with top-notch typography. It was created by Ev Williams, who helped establish the venerable Blogger.com and Twitter.

Medium certainly delivers on its promise, but there are drawbacks. Your work is basically thrown in the mix with a bunch of other posts, and you have no control over the design.

You might think design is no big deal, but WordPress fans do indeed agonize over which theme to choose. There is a whole industry of designers selling themes to WordPress bloggers.

Added to the mix in recent years are do-it-yourself services that allow you to create your site without knowing a thing about code. Webflow and Webydo are a couple of the better ones.

Coming soon is The Grid, which does all the designing for you with the magic of artificial intelligence. You upload the text and pictures, and it does the rest.

Once in a while, I get excited by this new technology and think about moving newsonaut to one of them. I doubt that will ever happen, though, because the platform I’ve been using all these years — Textpattern — has way too many advantages.

First of all, it’s free and open source. The same can be said of WordPress, but Textpattern also makes it easy to design your own site. With WordPress, even people who know a lot about coding will choose a pre-made theme and modify it to their taste because creating one from scratch is way too complicated.

With Textpattern, you can craft a blog design with HTML and CSS that looks however you like. Sprinkle in some Textpattern tags and you’re good to go.

Of course, that’s not for everyone. I can understand that some people just want to write and click “publish.” Some of us, though, want to actually be the publisher.

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March 14, 2015


Newspaper errors have a way of living on for eternity

Missippi's literacy program shows improvement
A headline error that will forever live in infamy, thanks to Google.

A newspaper mistake briefly made the rounds on Twitter last week — the results of a survey showed both answers as Yes.

It was kind of funny because the person who tweeted a picture of the error asked whether this was an indication of the decline of newspapers. The answer had to be Yes because, apparently, that was only answer available. And that’s the way Twitter is — have a chuckle then move on to the next thing.

A more serious answer, of course, would be No. Someone made a mistake, just as people have been making mistakes since the time humans evolved to develop cognitive abilities.

Cavemen no doubt had inaccurate depictions in their cave paintings. Egyptian hieroglyphics could be riddled with misplaced birds for all we know. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, he also invented a way for blunders to be multiplied and kept as souvenirs.

The trouble with newspaper mistakes is that they have a permanence that makes them all the more cringeworthy. Historians hundreds of years from now will search through futuristic archives, find them and have a laugh at the paper’s expense long after it has ceased to exist.

The Internet has made things worse, allowing errors to live on in listicles so that mistakes by local papers become global phenomena for years to come. Type “funniest newspaper” into Google, and you get suggestions such as funniest newspaper typos and funniest newspaper errors.

I have to admit: they are funny. I just hope that one of mine never shows up.

But seriously, an argument could be made that there are more mistakes than ever in the news wherever the printed word is found. Misspelled words are not at all uncommon in newspapers, on the Internet or on television.

Unrelenting cutbacks mean there are fewer journalists in newsrooms and fewer eyeballs to catch mistakes before they are published. I can remember a couple of times when errors got by editors and were caught by a pressman. Yes, there was a time when newspapers had presses in the same building.

Nowadays, many reporters are expected to write a story and publish it straight to the Internet. And it shows — awkward sentence structure, misplaced words, and obvious typos are all there. In the past, an editor would have corrected them.

The problem with editing your own copy is that the brain often sees what you meant to write instead of what you actually did write. Even having editors isn’t a guarantee that flubs will be fixed. These people need to be trained and experienced — it’s easier to make a good catch when you’ve seen pretty much every kind of mistake that’s ever been made.

News organizations are well aware that errors — even something as minor as misspelling “forty” as “fourty” — hurt their credibility. After all, if they couldn’t get that right, then maybe they’re getting more important things wrong as well. The facts themselves can be called into question.

Journalists hate mistakes every bit as much as readers, but they need support. And that’s been slowly dwindling away.

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March 7, 2015


Apple just might succeed in getting us to put time back on our wrists

Self magazine with Apple Watch
A recent cover of Self magazine with the Apple Watch strategically placed.

Back in ancient times when everyone had a smartphone except me, I was out boating with one of my kids. I needed to get back at a certain time, but didn’t have a watch so I asked a couple of young people in a nearby boat.

They had forgotten to bring their phones with them, so they weren’t able to help me. They were baffled by the concept of wearing a watch.

I wasn’t wearing a watch either, but for a different reason. I used to wear one all the time, but a few years earlier had accidentally left it in my jeans pocket and put it through the wash. It was ruined.

Lesson learned, don’t ever do that again. Sure enough, I bought a new watch and put it through the wash a few weeks later. Another one ruined.

Lesson learned, I am not meant to own a watch. And really, most of the time it’s easy to get along without one. The time is on clocks in the car, on the wall, on the computer, on outdoor signs. And, of course, it’s on the phone that you can easily dig out of your pocket.

On Monday, Apple is making a big announcement about its upcoming new product, the Apple Watch. Just as smartphones are really mini computers with a phone built in, these watches will be even tinier computers that happen to tell the time.

It’s not like Apple is inventing something new. There are already many so-called smart watches on the market, but none has really captured the imagination of consumers. But circumstances were similar when Apple came out with the iPhone. It wasn’t the first smartphone, but it was the first smartphone that really caught on. Now they’re everywhere.

So now the question is whether Apple can do a repeat performance with the watch.

I had my doubts until I read an article on TechCrunch by Matthew Panzarino called The Apple Watch is Time, Saved. After talking to people who have used a prototype of the Apple Watch, he has concluded that the Apple Watch may become “the primary way you access your iPhone during the day.”

One user told me that they nearly “stopped” using their phone during the day; they used to have it out and now they don’t, period. That’s insane when you think about how much the blue glow of smartphone screens has dominated our social interactions over the past decade.

So in other words, Apple gets us addicted to iPhones and the other smartphones that came after them, then offers a way for us to wean ourselves off them. And it won’t come cheap. Prices will range from hundreds of dollars for the low end to thousands of dollars for the high end. It’s hard to imagine a circumstance where most people wouldn’t simply continue to make due with pulling out their phone.

It definitely seems like a luxury, but this might be where Apple finds success in the market. These watches appear to be nicely designed — aimed at people who not only want to a convenient way to check notifications from their iPhone but also like to flash some bling.

Early advertising seems to point in that direction. The cover of a recent issue of Self magazine, for example, features a svelte young woman looking sporty with an Apple Watch conspicuous on her wrist. It’s declared to be a spring must-have. In Vogue magazine, several full-page ads show close-up fashion points of the watch itself, with hardly a mention of what it does.

Will Apple’s strategy work? Only time, ahem, will tell.

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February 27, 2015


We are living in the Age of Spock

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.
Leonard Nimoy as Spock in the same episode.

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.

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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

A poster for the movie Born Free.

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.

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January 31, 2015


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

Bill Gates promotes his participation in Ask Me Anything on Reddit.

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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