The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

February 6, 2016

Good riddance to comment trolls

The Victoria Times Colonist is the latest in a long line of news sites that has closed down its comments sections.

Editor-in-chief Dave Obee says trolls have ruined hope for anything resembling civilized debate.

Stories about the homeless bring vitriolic comments. Anything about First Nations will bring comments that reveal a staggering, sickening level of racism.
Articles about people who have bared their soul to tell their stories, in the hope of helping others, have brought calls for the person to commit suicide. Home addresses have been posted by people trying to harass others.

There may have been a time when readers would have been disappointed, but not so much any more. There seems to be more a sense of relief.

Reaction published in letters to the editor includes “bravo” and “thank you.” And I can see why. The bad commenters have shouted down reasonable people to such an extent that real discussion has died.

In fact there are now paid trolls whose job it is lurk in comments sections and hurl invective at opposing opinions. It’s their job to kill debate, so the people who employ them can carry on with as little scrutiny as possible.

On a small site, the few comments that come in can be moderated without a lot of effort. In those cases, they work. But on larger sites, it’s too much — especially when trolls deliberately target them.

One letter writer pointed out that turning off comments hides the hate but doesn’t make it go away.

And Toronto Star columnist Desmond Cole says we still need to confront discrimination and oppression in real life.

The instinct behind the closing of comments sections is perfectly understandable, but looking away from the worst in our culture is generally not a path to progress, and can leave vulnerable people at the mercy of the haters.

He’s right, of course, but I don’t agree that by turning off comments we “dismiss oppression.” Haters feed off each other and reach consensus that what they say is acceptable. It’s not, and they need to know this.


January 30, 2016

Newspaper heads need to give us their why

Author Simon Sinek has a theory about why people become loyal to certain products or brands. He says it starts with why — the motivation of the people who run the company.

What makes the CEO get out of bed in the morning? What does he or she do to motivate the people who work for the company? Is it something we can identify with?

Apple is a good example of this. CEO Steve Jobs turned the company around in the ’90s with a Think Different campaign that had nothing to do with computers and everything to do with core beliefs.

Since then, many people have bought into this ideal. Most recently, they have rewarded Apple with a record-breaking quarter of $18.4 billion in profits.

Another example is Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX. He has big ideas about what the future should look like — electric cars, space exploration, innovative transportation systems.

Those who admire his foresight are the ones who buy his cars, and help make Tesla a success.

Which brings me to the great sadness of newspapers. Two more dailies — in Nanaimo and Guelph — have shut down. Postmedia, owner of most of Canada’s major dailies, including the Sun and Province in Vancouver, is laying off more employees and merging newsrooms.

I wonder what motivates Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey. How about the men who run B.C.‘s newspaper chains — Black Press chairman David Black, Glacier Media chairman Sam Grippo, Aberdeen Publishing president Bob Doull?

We don’t hear much from them, so it’s hard to say what they believe in. Newspaper readers would no doubt appreciate it if they spoke publicly about great journalism. If they’re getting out of bed, thinking about building communities and holding power to account, it would be incredible to hear this.

As it stands, we’re left to believe that the people who run newspapers are simply trying to eke out some revenue before their properties are no longer viable. There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s hardly inspiring.

For inspiration you would have to turn to websites such as The Tyee or the Vancouver Observer. The people who run these news sites are quite open about why they do what they do. You might not agree with it, but there are plenty of others who do, and they are willing put up their money to keep these efforts afloat.

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post with his own money, he made it clear that he did for the journalism. And now the Post is making a solid turnaround, close to surpassing the New York Times in readership.

There are no simple solutions for newspapers, but it’s hard to imagine anyone reading them or preferring them when the people in charge are silent on how they feel about the one thing that would make us want to use their product — good journalism.

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January 23, 2016

Facebook Life vs. real life


A friend recently changed her picture on Facebook and got close to 80 likes. It was a nice picture, but not significantly nicer than the previous one — at least not that I noticed. Still, it was worthy of approval from dozens of what I assume to be real-life friends, relatives and co-workers.

She’s living a Facebook Life that most of us can only dream of.

I have another friend who regularly posts about his happy life, his wonderful family and his great job. At least half a dozen people chime in with support every time.

He’s another one living the Facebook Life.

I’m tempted to reply with something sarcastic, but I know it will just make me look bad and I would have to admit to having Facebook Envy. Yes, that’s also a thing, according to Urban Dictionary.

But a new study shows I may be right to be skeptical. A professor at Oxford University found that the dozens of friends on Facebook are nothing like real friends. At most, you could count on a few of them.

The average person said that only about 27 per cent of their Facebook friends were genuine.

Those numbers are mostly similar to how friendships work in real life, the research said. But the huge number of supposed friends on a friend list means that people can be tricked into thinking that they might have more close friends.

Urban Dictionary goes further with what is known as the Facebook Paradox — the suggestion that people who spend a lot of time on Facebook don’t have time for real friends. Their Facebook Life is the opposite of their real life.

In one extreme case, a 19-year-old woman studying at the University of Pennsylvania appeared to have the perfect life — if you went by her Facebook posts. Then one day she took her life by jumping off the ninth storey of a parking garage.

A research scientist at the University of Montreal looking at the case says people tend to want to show their best selves on Facebook. And those rare times when they do talk about their problems, friends are not sure how to react.

Networks like Twitter … like Facebook, they have a public appearance. To express that one is going through difficult times in their lives is still restrained by the issues of stigma.

Perhaps Facebook can best be compared with socializing at a party. When people ask how you’re doing, they really don’t want you to pour your heart out. And even if you do talk about your problems, you’re expected to put a positive spin on them.

So there is no need for Facebook Envy. People living Facebook Lives are just acting like they would in any social situation. It is social media, after all.


January 9, 2016

These word games spell fun

Seven Little Words, Monkey Wrench and Moxie

When you learn a programming language, you’re often told that it is similar to learning any other language. Certain words mean certain things and there is a syntax to string them together into meaningful phrases.

That might explain how I can find beauty in both well-written code for a web page and well-written prose for a book or article. In any case, I never get tired of words — and if I can play games with them, then so much the better.

Lately, I find myself spending much of my spare time on a group of apps that just happen to be created by a small company in Maine called Blue Ox Technologies. The ox in their logo wears a tuque with snow on it, so I’m pretty sure it’s meant to represent Paul Bunyan’s mythical ox, Babe.

The company has had huge success with Seven Little Words, no doubt in part because of a mention in Oprah’s O magazine. According to the Blue Ox website, the game has been downloaded more than 10 million times since it was invented in 2011. It’s even made a crossover into the newspaper world, being published in many U.S. papers.

The app, available on several mobile platforms, is ingeniously simple — right down to the smiley face it uses for an icon. The object is to create seven words based on a list of clues similar to what you might get in a crossword puzzle. You also get the number of letters for each word.

To create the words, you tap on a four-by-five grid consisting of 20 chunks of letters. Each chunk has two or three letters.

For example, here’s a clue in one of the puzzles: “in jest: 9 letters.” The answer is “teasingly” — made up of “tea” plus “sin” plus “gly.” I find the game challenging, but not to the point of being aggravating.

The catch is that while the app is free, if you want to play it a lot, you’ll have to pay for puzzle packages. You start off with one free package, and you get one free puzzle a day. For me that’s enough.

Blue Ox has recently introduced a new word game called Monkey Wrench. It’s only on iOS so far, but I have a feeling it will be on Android and other platforms soon.

Monkey Wrench is akin to the find-a-word puzzles that have been around forever — but with a twist. The letters are in six-sided hexagons in stead of squares. That means the words you’re looking for could be meandering all over the place.

The clues consist of categories and blank spaces. I was happy in the latest daily puzzle to see the category Canadian Provincial Capitals with two words — one with 13 letters and one with eight letters. That one was easy, especially since the first letters are highlighted. In this case they were C and E.

It can be a lot tougher, though, if you get a category like NFL #1 Draft Picks and know nothing about the subject. Even so, it’s possible to make educated guesses with the process of elimination.

Monkey Wrench works like Seven Little Words for payment. It starts off free, but you have to pay for additional puzzle packs. A daily puzzle is always free.

One of the oldest games from Blue Ox is Moxie, which is totally free and available for iOS, Android and Kindle Fire. It’s a trickier to describe, but basically you’re creating words by either adding or substituting letters. Every time you create a word you get points based on the value of the letters. There are bonus points if you make a word from one of three special lists — animal, vegetable or mineral.

It’s great that it’s free, but the downside is that you might spend a lot more time playing than you might have otherwise. If you’re the competitive type, you’ll aim for the global list of high scores.

A fourth game from Blue Ox worth mentioning is Red Herring, which involves placing words in the correct category. I’m not too crazy about it myself, but that doesn’t mean you won’t like it.

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January 2, 2016

Star Wars has destroyed Star Trek

William Shatner dressed as storm trooper.
William Shatner, who played Capt. Kirk, is dressed as a Star Wars storm trooper. (Reuters)

I’m such a big science fiction fan that I gave a blog about media and technology an outer space theme. So I should be really pumped about the new Star Wars movie, right?

I wish.

Star Wars movies — every one of them — literally put me to sleep. I’ve forced myself to watch them because they have become a huge part of pop culture and it seems almost impossible to love science fiction and not be at least familiar with the Star Wars stories.

So why do I keep falling asleep? My theory is that these movies basically consist of explosions, running around and wisecracks. There is precious little in the way of character development. The plots are a convoluted mess not worth trying to follow.

Despite all that, I’m willing to set Star Wars to one side and be content with the fact that it provides harmless escapism to millions of people around the world. I just don’t happen to be one of them. Or at least I’m almost willing, because there is one thing about Star Wars that kind of hurts. It has destroyed Star Trek.

Every once in awhile you’ll come across an article that compares Star Wars and Star Trek with the idea of declaring a winner. I definitely like Star Trek better, but as far as a winner goes, Star Wars is clearly the victor.

All you have to do is look at the Star Trek reboot by J.J. Abrams and the the trailer for the next one in the series by Justin Lin — lots of explosions, running around and wisecracks. It’s the Star Wars blockbuster formula shoehorned into Star Trek.

It’s hard to believe that Star Trek started out as a series of stories about exploration. It was right there in the opening to the show: “Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

The Enterprise crew went out of their way to avoid conflict. They were diplomats who tried to peacefully resolve disputes. And if they weren’t able to do that, they considered it a failure.

Star Trek was inspirational because it hinted at a future world where we on Earth could settle our differences peacefully. If Justin Lin wanted to take Star Trek back to its roots, the next movie might involve a visit to a planet with a conflict similar to the one in Iraq and Syria. There would be a starship hero who is a Muslim.

We would be treated to an exploration of both outer and inner space.

I would be very surprised if this happened. Science fiction movies about exploration still exist, but the Star Trek franchise has abandoned them.

You can watch Ex Machina for an exploration of our relations with artificial intelligence. Try Coherence for an exploration of how a group of people at a dinner party react to a passing comet.

Yes, these are good movies, but they aren’t the blockbusters that Star Trek aspires to. The Martian, an exploration of human survival, made a lot of money at the box office — but it’s hardly in the same league as Star Wars.

The Star Trek tradition lives on. Just don’t expect to see it in Star Trek.

Update: There was some hope that we would see a new Star Trek movie based on the original concept. Some fans raised a million dollars and were about to go into production. But now they’re being sued by Paramount and CBS. It’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to withstand that kind of pressure, but they’re hoping to work out a deal.


December 19, 2015

What's in a dot-name? Plenty

A screenshot from the website.

If you’re starting up a website, it’s tough to come up with a name because all the good ones have been taken. That’s especially the case if you limit yourself to names ending in dot-com.

And many of the other well-known endings — dot-net and dot-org — have also been snapped up. To get around that, some sites are using endings normally reserved for countries.

The British Indian Ocean territory, an archipelago south of India, is in demand among tech websites. That’s because dot-io not only stands for Indian Ocean but also input/output — the communication that takes place between computing devices.

The Pacific Ocean country of Tuvalu is in a similar situation. Sites specializing in television buy a domain from the island’s government so they can have dot-tv in their name.

Sometimes, a country’s letters are tacked on to spell out a whole word. Libya was popular for awhile because dot-ly could be used in combinations such as — a site specializing in shortening web addresses.

That trend may soon become a thing of the past with the flood of new endings now available. When you go to register a name for your site, you’ll find that there is a dot word for just about anything you can think of.

Some new ones coming up include dot-car, dot-family, dot-theatre, dot-protection, dot-wine and dot-cloud.

It might seem like a recipe for mayhem, but I’ve seen some of the new names used in ways that actually make sense., for example, is a guide to the code needed on websites for special characters such as ampersands.

When dot-news came out, I thought it might become wide spread. So far, it seems to be used mainly by people who want to reserve it. Were you thinking about starting up Too bad — it’s taken.

A particularly contentious one is dot-sucks. The idea behind it (or so they say) is to keep corporations and brands on their toes. More commonly, though, it seems to be used as a way to extort money from those same corporations and brands. If they don’t pay for a dot-sucks address, they run the risk of someone else doing it.

This is what happened to Air Canada. They didn’t buy, and now they’re paying the price.

The site is supposedly a place for Air Canada customers to share their horror stories with the hope of improving service. But as of this writing, there was not one shared story. Instead, there were plenty of stories pulled in automatically from other sources via news feeds.

Plus, there is a store where you can buy gadgets to make your flight better.

I’m guessing the owners hope Air Canada will sit up, take notice, and make an offer to buy the site. It’s hard to believe they expect to make money from the store.

Of course, Air Canada could simply counter with one of their own called Yes, that possibility also exists.


December 12, 2015

Here's hoping artificial intelligence will be our friend

Ex Machina is an excellent movie that explores artificial intelligence.

There’s a lot more to artificial intelligence than the impossible-to-beat chess game on your computer.

Digital assistants on your smartphone (think Siri, Google Now and Cortana) can figure out how to fulfil many of your wishes, but they are just the start.

The original inventors of Siri, for example, have started up a new company devoted to going way beyond their first child’s capabilities. Siri can do whatever it’s programmed to do. The next step, called Viv, will be able to learn and anticipate what you want.

But even that feels kind of old. OpenAI, a non-profit research company with a billion dollars in backing, started up this week to explore artificial intelligence and ensure that it is used for humanity’s benefit — not its downfall.

Eminent British scientist Stephen Hawking predicted just one year ago that artificial intelligence could eventually catch up with humans and surpass us.

It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.

The researchers at OpenAI see the future going either way.

It’s hard to fathom how much human-level AI could benefit society, and it’s equally hard to imagine how much it could damage society if built or used incorrectly.

A good way to forecast the future is by looking at current trends. I find Siri on my iPhone to be hit and miss. Sometimes I get a decent answer, sometimes I get nothing. It still seems easier and more reliable to type in a search.

But it’s easy to forget that even search has come a long way. There was a time when search engine results were mostly a mess of links to items that may have contained your keywords but little else of interest.

When Google came along with the smarts to figure out how to give us search results that are actually useful, we sat up and took notice. Now we take it for granted.

One day the successors to Siri will be that good, and it will seem normal for your phone to know you so well that it can anticipate your every whim.

The truly amazing breakthrough will come when computers create things for us without being asked. It might start with Siri suggesting that it could write a blog post for you about a recent vacation — based on things in your phone such as airline bookings, travel itineraries and photos taken on certain dates and at certain place.

Or maybe Siri could check your LinkedIn account and see that you’re between jobs. It might take the initiative of searching the Internet for job postings that fit your skill set, tailor some cover letters and resumés, then fire them off.

The tipping point will come when we realize that Siri’s blog posts and cover letters are better than anything we could have done for ourselves. The artificial intelligence would not only surpass human intelligence, but discourage us from learning to do things on our own.

Will this be a good thing or a bad thing? Every technological advance has had tradeoffs. Just be aware of what’s going on and be ready to scramble to make sure the tradeoff is in your favour.

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December 5, 2015

Terrorists take advantage of weak gun laws in U.S.

It was only a matter of time before terrorists figured out how to use the gaping hole in U.S. security. The pair of Islamic State supporters who killed 14 and wounded 21 in San Bernardino took advantage of lax gun control laws to amass thousands of rounds of high-powered ammo and bomb-making equipment in their home.

In the midst of its latest tragedy, America appears to be searching for answers. Data from Google shows that normally searches for “gun shop” easily outpace those for “gun control” in most states. But after a mass shooting, there is a spike for searches on “gun control” in almost every state.

My hunch is that most Americans would be in favour of at least some kind of better regulation of gun sales, but they’re up against powerful forces.

For example, a day after the massacre, the U.S. Senate voted down broader background checks for people buying guns despite widespread support for the measure. It might have something to do with the fact that there’s a lot of money in gun sales, with the industry privately crowing about how mass shootings are good for business.

Here’s how it works. Following a mass shooting, there is talk of gun control, which the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates attack as an assault on the Second Amendment. Notably, gun and ammunition manufacturers often donate, either directly or as a portion of each sale, to the NRA. The fear of losing gun rights leads to panic buying, which brings greater profits to gun retailers, gun companies and their investors.

The enemies of America see this as an opening. If you want ammunition to attack the United States, why not get it from one of the most wide-open markets in the world — the U.S. itself.

In case you were wondering, yes there is an app for that. Terrorists are using the encrypted messaging app Telegram for crowdfunding guns. The owners of the app have cracked down, but one campaign apparently remains active.

And just to rub it in, one of the San Bernardino terrorists pledged allegiance to Islamic State on one of the most American of modern institutions, Facebook.

The post has been removed, of course. But I’m wondering if we’re reaching a point where mass shootings have become as American as apple pie.

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November 28, 2015

Google shouldn't take our trust for granted

Google has become so dominant that we often don’t even talk about searching any more. We google it.

Worldwide, Google’s search engine market share is estimated at around 90 per cent. It makes you wonder why Bing and Yahoo even bother trying.

But the trouble with a having near monopoly on a service is that there is always the temptation to abuse that position. This happened recently when Google changed its search results so that its own products ranked higher than those of competitors.

When looking at search results, people tend to believe that the closer the result is to the top, the better it must be. And generally speaking that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

So if you do a search on “restaurant reviews,” then it is fair to expect that the best ones are at the top. I tried this search with Google and got results from TripAdvisor and Yelp. That seems about right. These are both popular sites for restaurant reviews, and you would expect them to have enough reviews to make a visit to them worthwhile.

Now, apparently Google Plus has a similar service that you’ve probably never heard of. Google Plus has never reached mainstream popularity, and could use a little help with promotion. And what better way to do this than with search results.

That’s what happened last weekend. Suddenly, the most “popular” place to find reviews was with Google Plus. TripAdvisor and Yelp were buried.

Google claims it was a mistake and that things are now back to normal. But just a few days of this “error” cost Yelp millions of dollars.

“Far from a glitch, this is a pattern of behavior by Google,” said its CEO Jeremy Stoppelman.

This kind of goosing of the rankings is so obvious that Google was bound to get called on it. But it makes me wonder if they’re also doing it in more subtle ways that fly under the radar. If this company, with so much power, is to maintain any kind of credibility, it needs our trust.

Take privacy, for instance. It’s fairly well know by now that when we use Google’s services — search, email, docs, maps, etc. — we’re paying by giving up a little bit of our privacy. Everything we do is logged and aggregated to help them sell advertising.

As long as we know we’re making this deal, it seems fair. After all, Google does offer some excellent services, so why not take advantage of them.

I just wish they would be more transparent about it.

For example, recently when clicking on Google search results, I found it took a long time for the websites to load. It got so bad that the web browser timed out — essentially gave up trying.

The reason for this might be the incredibly long web addresses you get in Google’s search results. Try right-clicking on one of the results and choose Copy URL (or something similar), then paste this into a text editor.

What you’ll get is something like this: plus a string of gobbledygook that only the most dedicated computer programmer could love. In the midst of it all will be something familiar: the actual web address that you were looking for.

Search “food network” in Google and look at the mess you get. Try the same search in a competing search engine called Duck Duck Go and you get this, plain and simple:

So what’s the deal?

Google is not content to merely present you with a list of search results. It wants to know which one you clicked on. So instead of going directly to the website of your choice, you first have to make a little side trip to Google’s servers.

Normally, this happens so quickly that you don’t even notice it. But it’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking that your computer or the Internet is slow. It might be Google’s fault.

Lately I’ve been trying out Duck Duck Go. This is a fairly new service that promises complete privacy — no tracking of any kind. Their results are good and getting better, plus they take you directly to the websites.

On the other hand, my Google result for “food network” was better in the sense that it gave me the Canadian (.ca) version of this website, while Duck Duck Go gave me the U.S. (.com) version. Google can track your location, right down to the city. And this helps provide more relevant results. In some ways this is good thing and in some ways it’s creepy. Duck Duck Go won’t automatically track your location, but you can use its settings to let it know what country you live in.

I just wish they would tell us in plain, open language what exactly is going on. The explanation needs to be up-front where everyone can see and understand it.

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November 21, 2015

Let's talk about exes and sex

Neil Sedaka, Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Neil Sedaka's single, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Back in 1962, Neil Sedaka sang Breaking Up Is Hard To Do. Too bad they didn’t have apps back then because these days technology makes breaking up easy — even fun — to do.

For example, our friend Facebook, now used by three-quarters of the online population, has a new feature that hides your ex from your newsfeed without blocking or unfriending them.

When you update your relationship status after a breakup, all you have to do is select a couple of options and you no longer have to see their posts. Their picture won’t show up either if their name is tagged in a photo.

No fuss, no muss.

But what about the actual breakup. Simply changing your Facebook status unfortunately isn’t quite enough. You somehow have to directly communicate with the person you want to break up with. But who wants to deal with anger, hurt feelings and the rest of it?

Luckily, there is a new service that will do this for you, and the cost is a bargain.

For $10, The Breakup Shop will send your soon-to-be-ex a standard text. For $20, they’ll send an email, and for $30 they’ll personalize the message.

Here’s a sample message:

Hi Gordon

Hope you’ve been having a great day so far.

We regret to inform you that your girlfriend Lindsay is breaking up with you. Although you’ve had a good run and shared some great memories along the way, it’s time to move on.

While you’re likely quite shocked and understandably saddened by this news, we just know that you’ll be back on your feet in no time.

Here are some helpful links to get you started:

Self Growth – How to Get Past a Devastating Breakup
Ben & Jerry’s online store
The Breakup Shop – Gifts for Exes

We offer you our deepest sympathies, and wish you all the best in the future.

I especially like the attempt at up-selling with an offer of gifts from their website.

But really, your ex shouldn’t have trouble moving on, because we have apps like Tinder that match you with new partners. The emphasis on casual sex might seem shallow, but CEO Sean Rad has plans to raise the bar.

“I need an intellectual challenge,” he said in an interview.

He went on to mistakenly refer to intellectual attraction as “sodomy,” so I’m not really sure how much actual brain power will be involved. Did he mean “synergy?” I’m not sure, but give them time and they’ll work it out.

Making it even easier to move on and arrange a date is a proposal by Durex.

According the condom maker, young people find it easier to communicate with emojis in their text messages, especially when it comes to matters of intimacy. Oxford Dictionaries’ selection of the emoji as word of the year seems to back that up.

Just in time for World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, Durex is pushing to have a new emoji created for the condom. Young people all over the world will thank them.

So there you have it — progress in our modern times. Breaking up, and hooking up, are easer than ever.

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