newsonaut


The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

April 18, 2015


Hyped headlines about Apple Watch don't tell the full story

If you have been following the latest about the new Apple Watch, you may be quite impressed by the sales figures. Headlines everywhere have been announcing that Apple sold a million of the devices in the U.S. alone on the first day they were available for pre-order.

Here are some samples:


  • An estimated 1 million Apple Watches sold in U.S. in first 24 hours
  • Report: Apple sold more than a million Apple Watches in the U.S. on Friday
  • Survey suggests first day Apple Watch sales beat all Android Wear devices sold in 2014

But wait a minute — are there weasel words in those headlines? Why, yes there are: “estimated” and “suggests.” So maybe that one million figure is just a ballpark. By citing a “report,” one publication signalled that it didn’t bother to check. If the number is wrong, we can blame someone else’s report.

Another headline doesn’t bother to quibble, stating the one million as fact and drawing conclusions from it: “1+ Million Sold: Why People Covet Apple Watch.”

As it turns out the report making suggestions about sales of Apple Watches came from a company called Slice Intelligence. And it really was just a guess on their part, based on their analysis of online shopping — the methodology of which is not revealed. Never heard of Slice Intelligence? Neither have I. Shouldn’t we wait for an official announcement from Apple itself before bandying about figures like this? Well, yeah, but one million is such a big round number and who knows if Apple will ever divulge anything.

I bring all this up as a way of introducing you to a report that came out earlier this year called Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content. Author Craig Silverman points out that in the Internet age, news organizations are more interested in funnelling readers to their website than they are in building a reputation for accuracy.

He puts it this way:

They scour the web and social media for anything that might generate traffic, and work to get it up and promoted as a fast as possible. Verification and context are someone else’s job, should they choose to do it.

Weasel words become the order of the day:

News organizations utilize a range of hedging language and attribution formulations (“reportedly,” “claims,” etc.) to convey that information they are passing on is unverified. They frequently use headlines that express the unverified claim as a question (“Did a woman have a third breast added?”). However, research shows these subtleties result in misinformed audiences.

Those question-style headlines should be a red flag on any story. The answer is almost always “no” because if it were true you can be sure it would be stated as fact: “Woman has third breast added” is far more likely to draw readers than “Did a woman have third breast added?”

On the other hand, I can see why some editors resort to unverified or less-than-honest headlines. A well written headline, after all, pretty much tells the whole story so why bother clicking on it and reading more? Especially when there are a gazillion other headlines coming out of the firehose demanding our attention.

And seriously — who are these million people who have supposedly bought an Apple Watch? Do you personally know even one of them? That alone should make us wonder whether the whole thing is just hype.

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April 11, 2015


Video is everywhere, and that might be a good thing

A screen grab from a video shows a South Carolina police officer firing at a man as he runs away.

With the increasing presence of surveillance cameras around us, there is concern that we’re headed for the type of society where authorities can keep a constant eye on us.

But with smartphones in just about every pocket and purse, the tables may be turned. Citizens can watch the watchers.

That’s what happened last week when a passerby in South Carolina rushed to the scene of an incident involving a police officer and a man pulled over for a broken tail light. The man wound up dead and the official story, at first, was that it was the unfortunate result of scuffle between the two.

The video told a different story. We now know that an unarmed man was shot in the back eight times as he ran away. The officer was fired and charged with murder.

The person who made the video sensed that a situation was unfolding and ran toward it with the idea of getting it on the record. There are those who suggest this was an act of journalism, and I tend to agree. Most people would have run away or at least laid low.

There is now talk of making police wear video cameras that record their every action. In a lot of cases this might protect them from false accusations, but it would also have the sad side effect of showing they — the good guys — can’t always be trusted.

There are now hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras installed around the world. An estimated one billion smartphones — all of them with cameras — have been sold worldwide since 2007.

A question raised by the South Carolina video is whether it was a one-off. Did someone with a video camera just happen to come by and record the one and only time a white police officer has ever deliberately shot and killed an unarmed black man. It seems unlikely, and that makes it all the more disturbing.

If ubiquitous video puts everyone — good guys and bad guys — on their best behaviour then the sacrifice of our privacy might be worth it.

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April 4, 2015


The Internet remembers your old tweets even if you don't — just ask Trevor Noah

Old tweets came back to haunt comedian Trevor Noah, but it didn't have to be that way.

Research by the London School of Economics shows that young people who watch political satire are more likely to vote.

If true, programs such as This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Daily Show are more than just sources of comedy. According to researcher Amy Bree Becker:

. . . tuning into a comedy interview increases the likelihood that young people will take part in a protest, march or demonstration, sign an email petition, or sign a written petition about a political or social issue. They are also more likely to recall basic facts about the politician if they catch them on comedy as opposed to cable news.

She notes that a survey by Pew Research found that 39 percent of the audience for The Daily Show is under the age of 30.

TV shows that poke fun at politicians likely increase the level of cynicism that already holds sway among voters. But it was real actions by real politicians that created this sense of distrust in the first place. Comedy just makes it easier to swallow.

With all this in mind, it becomes a fairly important event when Jon Stewart leaves as host of The Daily Show after 15 years. Who could possibly replace him? And can it be done gracefully?

In the age of the Internet, there are never easy answers to these questions. The recently announced new host Trevor Noah looks to be a smart and energetic replacement. But like all comedians these days, he posts jokes on Twitter. And if you go back over the years, you can dredge up his old jokes and judge them.

Of course, that’s exactly what happened.

Like many comedians, Noah would try out new material on Twitter to see if it was worth developing. A few years ago, he made some jokes about women, Jews and fat people that at best just aren’t funny and at worst are in bad taste.

Poor Noah had no idea back then that he would one day be entrusted with hosting a TV show considered in some circles to be a virtual pillar of American democracy. Can a man who told bad jokes on Twitter be given such a weighty responsibility?

We’ll see.

Meanwhile, you might want to think about your own Twitter past and how it can come back to haunt you.

In real life, if you say something idiotic, you can expect that the people who heard it will in some way hold you accountable — even if it’s just some razzing. But at least it’s over with and you can move on.

With social media, that idiotic statement can live on forever. It can be rediscovered over and over again. In the U.S., the Library of Congress is archiving billions of tweets.

Ask yourself — is there anything you’ve ever posted on Twitter that needs to live on for years? How about months? Or even weeks?

Let’s face it. There’s precious little on Twitter that couldn’t be deleted after a week or two and never be missed by anyone. So why keep those old tweets? Maybe services like Snapchat, which delete messages right away, have got it right.

I’m thinking most people don’t delete their old tweets because they’re too lazy, too busy or simply don’t care if anyone sees them. Noah likely fell into one of those categories.

To be sure, firing up your account at the Twitter website and manually deleting old tweets is no one’s idea of fun. Which is why, of course, there are services that will do this for you.

The appropriately named Tweet Delete automatically deletes your tweets after a certain period of time that you specify. It can also delete up to 3,200 of your old tweets in one go. It’s fairly basic, but at least it’s free.

For something more elaborate, you could try TweetDeleter. It has a free version that meets the needs of most people and a premium paid version aimed at companies that pump out hundreds of tweets a day.

Noah learned his lesson the hard way. Will you?

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March 31, 2015


Make images and captions stay together at the same width

The caption sticks out to the right and the image is pushed over to the left. That's not good.

I’ve been trying off and on for years to find a way to put captions under the images in newsonaut. It always seemed like it should be easy, but it never was.

The problem is that my pictures move around. They can be at the top, the left or the right. That means the captions have to be able to follow them around and match them in width.

The semantic way of doing it is like this:

<figure>
    <img src="#">
    <figcaption>
        Text for caption.
    </figcaption>
</figure>

But what if, say, the image is floated to the right and the caption goes on longer than its width? The caption will keep going as wide as it needs to to stay on one line, and push the image over to one side. It’s not a pretty sight.

I found the solution at Stack Overflow — a place where every imaginable web-related problem is resolved these days. And it made total sense because, well, we’re dealing with a caption here.

First, you display the figure as a table. HTML tables have the wonderful habit of containing whatever is inside of them — including images and captions. Even so, you have to make sure the caption knows that, so give it a display of table-caption. And where does the caption go? In my case it’s caption-side: bottom.

.fig-pic 	{
	display: table;
	float: right;
	margin: 0;
	}
.figcap-pic 	{
	display: table-caption;
	caption-side: bottom;
	margin: 4px 0 10px 20px;
	}
.pic	{
	margin: 20px 0 10px 20px;
	}

Simple and sensible.

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March 28, 2015


Now you can pick up your phone and watch what's happening all over the world

Periscope screenshot
A screenshot from Periscope shows smoke rising from a building collapse in New York. Watchers were able to comment in real time.

With Twitter you can tell people what you’re doing right now. With Periscope you can show them what you’re doing — via live streaming.

With this new app you can point your iPhone, tap a button and within seconds show the world what’s happening.

I’ve tried it, and it works. People around the globe were able to watch my cat rolling around and stretching on the floor. A few viewers displayed their approval by floating up some hearts. One sent a comment: “Beautiful cat”.

It was both thrilling and unnerving to give the world this tiny window into my kitchen. When the cat got bored, I stopped broadcasting and declined Periscope’s offer to save the video.

You can see other people’s live streams by scrolling through the app’s feed, just the way you do with Twitter, Facebook or pretty much any other social media app. The difference is that many of the options have the word “live” on them. When you tap on one of them, you’re peeking at something that’s taking place right then.

Of course, you might have to scroll for quite some time before you find something worth viewing. I lucked out and watched a guy doing from fire juggling. Periscope users encouraged him by sending lots of hearts. Some asked him to try specific tricks, and he obliged — all in real time.

I wasn’t the only one to show a pet’s antics. There are plenty of those, because the Internet just can’t seem to get enough of dogs and cats.

Meanwhile, the Toronto Star reports that Periscope has been embraced by the media and celebrities:

Periscope has already seen CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta bring it into a surgery, and comedian John Hodgman used it to kill time answering users’ questions in an airport. Famed Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has been using Periscope and NBC’s Today used it to show some behind-the-scenes stuff featuring weatherman Al Roker.

I predict Periscope will soon be on the smartphone of every journalist. Imagine being on the scene of a major incident and being able to broadcast it live to your followers. In fact, something like that occurred when a building collapsed recently in New York.

Ben Popper describes discovering the disaster on Periscope:

I got a push notification on Periscope, the new live-streaming app from Twitter, about a broadcast from the scene of the accident. Suddenly I was watching a video of the fire and smoke from a block away. No news media had yet arrived on the scene. . . . The broadcaster, Andrew Steinthal, got within a hundred feet or so before police arrived and asked everyone to disperse. Steinthal faced the camera, said how scary the whole thing had been, then signed off from his first Periscope reporting.

At the very least, news organizations are going to monitor Periscope for videos when they hear about an incident.

Let’s not forget that it was largely the efforts of journalists that made Twitter the success it is today. When that service started out, it was filled with the most mundane posts imaginable. Now it’s a source of breaking news and links to insightful commentary.

In a recent series of tweets, co-founder Jack Dorsey went out of his way to express his gratitude to journalists: “THANK YOU for keeping the world (and us!) honest and using Twitter to do your work. We wouldn’t be here without you.”

If Periscope does become a big success, it will in large part be due to the support of reporters and editors, who, as Dorsey says, “are true servants of the people.”

By the way, there is another app similar to Periscope called Meerkat. I haven’t tried it, but it’s also getting good reviews.

Neither of these apps is available yet for Android. Judging by the big splash they’ve been making so far, I predict it won’t be long before you can download them from Google Play.

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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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