The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

August 29, 2015

Despite threat of death and imprisonment, journalists want their freedom

Mohammed Fahmy, left, talks to human rights lawyer Amal Clooney in Cairo.

It’s been a bad week for journalists — two shot dead and two sentenced to prison for three years.

On the surface, it may not seem that these to instances have much in common, but there are parallels.

A cameraman and a reporter were shot dead while they were broadcasting a live interview in Virginia. The killer was a disgruntled former employee who felt his grievances were best expressed by going out with a bang and taking two innocent people with him.

Those journalists were just doing their job like everyone else does their job. The difference from most jobs is that it involves putting yourself out there for the world to see.

Because these two were exposed, they became targets for someone with mental issues to create a splash with a big audience.

Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian journalist working for Al-Jazeera, along with colleague Baher Mohamed, was also just doing his job — reporting on events in Egypt. The government felt that his pieces were too sympathetic to a group it was trying to destroy (the Muslim Brotherhood), so they were hauled off to jail and convicted of supporting a terrorist group.

Fahmy’s work, of course, was also something for the world to see. In this case, the government decided — in its zeal to stamp out the main opposition — to go after Al-Jazeera in the most public way it could. The resulting show trial was a warning to the Qatar-based news agency that they should consider self-censorship when reporting about Egypt.

Even if Fahmy had been favouring the Muslim Brotherhood in his reports, don’t forget that he was merely an employee of Al-Jazeera, which could easily have told him to make changes. But Al-Jazeera is out of reach in Qatar, and besides, going after a journalist with a public face is so much more likely to catch people’s attention.

There are some who say that TV stations are doing too many live reports, and putting their journalists in harm’s way more of than necessary. The solution would be to cut back on them.

Yes, news agencies could also cut back on reports that might piss off the government. It would certainly make things safer for their employees.

While we’re at it, we could also decide to let mentally disturbed individuals and military dictators set the agenda for the news cycle.

Like anyone else, no journalist wants to be shot or imprisoned, but all the ones I’ve known would be hard-pressed to agree to any infringement on their freedom to serve the public as they see fit.

And when I say it’s been a bad week for journalists, that only tells a small part of the story. There is bad news pretty much every week for journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates 41 journalists have been killed in 2015 and 221 imprisoned in 2014.


August 26, 2015

How to mute a source in Flipboard — update

That didn’t take long. Two weeks ago, I posted instructions on how to mute a source on Flipboard because I found the process to be convoluted, and thought I might save other people the frustration I was having.

Now the latest version of Flipboard (3.3.5) makes muting, likes, dislikes and reporting super simple.

Every article in the stream now has a downward-pointing chevron at the top right that you can tap for a list of options. Among them is the ability to mute the site or person the article came from. A nice touch is that Flipboard prompts you with a message asking whether you’re sure you want to go through with it.

You can still go into the Flipboard settings and find a list of muted sources. If you have a change of heart, you can uncheck the source and get it back in your feed.

Access settings by tapping on the person icon at the bottom right of the screen. Then tap on the gear at the top right.

August 22, 2015

The Ashley Madison affair: Don't trust the Internet to cover up for you

The lesson to be learned from the Ashley Madison debacle is this: If there is something you wouldn’t do in real life — because it’s embarrassing, immoral, dangerous or whatever — don’t think you can get away with doing it on the Internet.

The thousands who signed up with Ashley Madison so they could cheat on their wives or husbands are learning this hard truth after hackers broke into the site’s servers and dumped the files on the Internet where anyone with a little search savvy can find them.

Ashley Madison is quick to point out that the real criminals are the hackers, who call themselves the Impact Team. Its customers, they add, are not breaking any laws.

That may be true, but the site does promise anonymity, suggesting that people who use the service fear some kind of consequence if they are found out. In fact, this desire for anonymity is so strong that Ashley Madison was offering to permanently erase members’ files for an extra fee.

Some might call this a form of blackmail. According to interviews with the hackers, many people paid the extra fee, but the company never (for reasons that are not clear) followed through.

This is the situation that prompted the Impact Team to act.

I imagine there are suspicious wives and husbands all over North America sifting through the data dump to see whether their spouse is a member. We may even see a spike in the divorce rate.

Already, the Canadian Press has found credit card data attached to computers at the Department of National Defence and the House of Commons. No doubt, workers from all political parties are busy checking the backgrounds of their candidates. Cheating may be legal, but there are great swathes of the electorate who would never vote for a cheater.

The Impact Team, which appears to be made up of former employees, released a statement saying that the site contains thousands of fake female profiles and that 90 to 95 per cent of users are men: “Chances are your man signed up on the world’s biggest affair site, but never had one. If that distinction matters.”

Of course, in many cases that distinction won’t matter — marriages and careers will be ruined.

Robin Williams summed it up best: “The problem is that God gives men a brain and a penis, and only enough blood to run one at a time.”

Whole industries have taken advantage of this.

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August 15, 2015

News might seem negative because it doesn't reflect our reality

From Humans of New York: “He’s a very respectful husband. He’s different from a lot of the men in this region. He never stops me from voicing my opinions.” (Passu, Pakistan)

Now and again, managers in the news industry hear complaints from readers or viewers that the news is too negative.

Their concerns are understandable. Intuitively, it makes sense that exposing yourself to news about the bad things in the world will affect your own outlook.

A blog at Psychology Today, called Why We Worry, says that “negative sensationalism” in the news has increased in the past few decades. The writer, Graham C.L. Davey, cites this as his belief, but many would likely agree with him.

He concludes that “not only are negatively valenced news broadcasts likely to make you sadder and more anxious, they are also likely to exacerbate your own personal worries and anxieties.”

That may be true, but it could also be argued that the news provides a distraction. After all, the time you spend thinking about a devastating forest fire is time you don’t spend thinking about the ups and downs of your own life.

People who describe themselves as news junkies might really be people with a tendency to avoid facing up to the realities of what’s happening at home — even if that reality is simple boredom.

Somewhere in the midst of all this lies the Humans of New York project. This is a blog that consists of photo portraits of ordinary people with accompanying interviews. Sometimes the text is an off-the-cuff remark, but often it details compelling details about the person’s life.

The man behind the project, American photographer Brandon Stanton, has a massive following on social media due to his ability to captures slices of life that go to the core of our humanity. He is currently travelling in Pakistan, where he has been welcomed with open arms.

If you know anything about Pakistan, it’s likely from news reports about violence and terrorism. This is the country where Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. troops. This is the country accused of harbouring the Taliban. This the home of Malala Yousafzai, who was shot because of her advocacy for education for girls.

But Pakistan is a large country with many millions of people who have nothing to do with the things we see in the news. This is why so many of them were glad to have Stanton chronicle the joys and sorrows of their day-to-day lives.

According to Vocativ, his popularity on Facebook has exploded with thousands of new fans from Pakistan.

An open letter to the Express Tribune says it all:

Brandon, it is true that my country, like any other country in the world, is filled with horrible people who do dreadful things. My state has been known to make stupid decisions too. However, there is so much good here as well. There are such good souls here; people who restore one’s faith in humanity. There is always another side to things, and you my friend, are showing the world that side.

The popularity of Humans of New York is not that it presents good news instead of bad. In fact, much of what it shows is mixture of hope and tragedy. It’s different because it breaks through the filter of what those with influence consider to be important. We see what truly occupies, to a greater or lesser extent, every human — families, health, shelter, relationships.

When people talk about there being too much negativity in the news, what they might really mean is that there not enough realism — surely things can’t be that bad.

It’s true that the world is not always a nice place, and we need to know about that so we can continue to find ways to make it better. Still, it’s good to remember that what’s more important could be happening right now in your own home and in the homes of people everywhere.

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August 12, 2015

How to mute a source in Flipboard

Flipboard is by far one of the best news-aggregator apps available. It figures out what kind of stories you’re interested in, and gives you more of the same.

Occasionally, it insists on using a source that may fit your interests but espouses a point of view that’s so annoying, you just can’t take it any more.

There is a way to mute these sources, but Flipboard doesn’t make it obvious. So for those of you searching for instructions, here they are:

1. Tap on a story from the source you want to mute.

2. Tap on the comment icon at the top. It’s between the star and share icons. Yes, this takes you to an area primarily intended for leaving comments.

3. Tap on the head-and-shoulders icon. Presumably it represents the person who is the source for these stories. In many cases, though, the source is an organization so this can be a little confusing.

4. You’ll get a list of options, one of which is mute everywhere. That’s the one you want. There is also the option of muting in cover stories if you just want to de-emphasize the source but not completely get rid of it.

5. Now go into Flipboard’s settings — tap on the person icon at the bottom right of the main screen, then tap on the gear at the top right. From there, you can tap on Muted Sources and see the source you just muted.

These instructions work with version 3.3.3 of Flipboard.


August 5, 2015

Kamloops has a chance to show the way in a post-print world

Despite being blessed with many wonderful attributes, Kamloops maintains the dubious distinction of being the largest city in Canada without a daily newspaper. It’s been that way for about a year and a half now.

The bright side, if you can call it that, is that this city of about 80,000 souls has become a laboratory for the post-print future.

When The Daily News existed, Kamloops residents could read eight newspapers a week if you included the twice-a-week Kamloops This Week. When the daily folded, KTW upped its game to three a week, but that still left us five issues short.

That’s not just a gap in news coverage, but also a gap in revenue. Between subscribers and advertisers, a bunch of money was left on the table. Certainly, the remaining media did their best to gobble it up, but others also moved in sensing they could get a piece of the pie.

InfoTel, a company formerly known for phone books, changed the name of its website to InfoNews. It has similar sites in Kelowna, Vernon and Penticton. Kelowna-based Castanet expanded its Kamloops coverage — joining spots on its website for Okanagan cities. KamloopsBCNow — a site patterned after KelownaNow — opened shop.

All are notable for being based outside of Kamloops, and for lacking depth in their news coverage. If they are examples of the future of journalism, I can only hope that competition and improved cash flows eventually encourage them to invest in better quality.

And now we have NewsKamloops — a stand-alone news site created from scratch by people who live in the community. Every aspect of the site has Kamloops written all over it. The best part, though, is that the owners are making a serious effort at providing good journalism.

I hope the people of Kamloops give this site a chance and don’t let it slip away. We need journalism that not only informs us about the community, but makes us feel a part of it. Good journalism takes the extra step of explaining how things work so we can form opinions and build consensus.

At the same time, I hope success for NewsKamloops doesn’t come at the expense of the other media in Kamloops. As far as I’m concerned, a variety of voices makes us stronger.

NewsKamloops will no doubt go through some growing pains, and they had better be serious about listening to suggestions from readers. Right off the bat, I have a few suggestions for improving the design.

Also, I wish they would stop referring to it as a newspaper site. Why weigh yourself down with a tired old metaphor? The future is coming whether we like it or not — so we might as well embrace it. In Kamloops, we have an opportunity to show how that’s done.

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August 1, 2015

All we really want is a ride

An Uber screenshot

The great thing about cars is that they allow you to go wherever you want whenever you want. That’s freedom.

But what if you could go wherever you want whenever you want without a car? And without paying for insurance and gas?

In cities where Uber has launched, this dream is becoming a reality. You fire up the app on your smartphone, look at a map to see if any cars are nearby, and request a ride.

Anyone with a car and some spare time can sign up as an Uber driver. Anyone willing to hand over payment details can sign up as a passenger.

In cities with dense populations, and a lot of cars to choose from, you might never need to own a car.

Uber even works with other apps. For example, StubHub — a service where people can buy and sell event tickets from each other — will remind you get schedule a ride so you arrive on time.

The vehicles of today are fast turning into little more than computers with wheels and a place for humans to sit. Proof of this came when hackers took control of a Jeep and crashed it. It won’t be long before cars get viruses.

The driverless cars pioneered by Google use a lot of technology to sense their environment, but they’re basically using computers to do the driving. Looked at this way, it makes sense that a computer company like Apple would be looking into making its own cars. It would give a whole new meaning to mobile.

The day could come when these cars are so reliable that they are able to navigate their way through downtown traffic. When that happens, the next step will be an Uber-like app that allows us to call a driverless car for a ride.

We already have driverless rapid transit in some cities — Vancouver’s SkyTrain, for example. Why not create a system like this for the roads?

While we’re at it, driverless mini-buses could be programmed to work like car pools. The mini-bus would show up at your house every day to take you and a group of employees to work. An app would give you minute-by-minute updates on when it would arrive.

But what about car-sharing? This concept is not quite so futuristic. People sign up with a co-operative to drive cars parked in their neighbourhood. They’re meant for round trips, so you have to bring them back in a reasonable amount of time.

In Vancouver, there are thousands of car-share vehicles. Obviously, the system works but you’re still paying for maintenance of the cars through membership fees.

Real freedom comes when a car is nothing more than a ride.

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July 25, 2015

Amazon could wind up turning Walmart into a dinosaur

Walmart looking over its shoulder

It wasn’t that long ago that big box stores were the ones shaking up local economies. Low prices and a wide selection made it hard for smaller stores to compete. Downtowns in some small communities practically died out.

Even bigger department stores are struggling as the middle class shrinks and looks for better deals to maintain its standard of living.

But now Walmart, the 900-pound gorilla of big boxes, is the one looking over its shoulder as Amazon — after years of building — is finally coming into its own. Last week, investors voted with their money for the online merchant and pushed its market value above that of Walmart for the first time.

Amazon’s revenue is still nowhere near Walmart’s, but annual sales growth has easily been outpacing it. Ironically, Amazon is beating Walmart at its own game with lower prices and a wider selection of products. On top of that, they offer fast service and convenience.

CEO Jeff Bezos has been patient since Amazon was born back in 1999, ploughing revenues and profits back into the company to ensure it continued to grow. In the future, Walmart may be left behind with the real competition coming from other e-commerce outlets such as Alibaba — a big name in Asia that is making inroads here in North America.

There’s no doubt that Amazon, Alibaba and others are making it harder for bricks-and-mortar stores — even giants like Walmart — to compete. There has been a spate of retailers announcing store closures lately. And Amazon long ago made it impossible for all but the largest bookstores to stay open.

This of course has a wider impact on local economies. As stores shut down or cut wages and jobs to stay afloat, the employees who are left have less to spend and increasingly turn to the Internet to save money. The downward spiral continues.

There are some stores that should always be viable. It’s hard to imagine people buying a lot of food online, for example. Appliances and furniture are awkward to purchase on the Internet, but it’s not unheard of.

If you can afford it, you might want to think about shopping at local stores that offer good service even if it comes at a higher price. Those places are owned by people who have a stake in the community. For Jeff Bezos, the place where you live is just a dot on the map.

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I hate to be a downer, so here’s a video explaining how Amazon really became a bigger company that Walmart.

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Update: Looks like I was wrong about food stores being safe. Amazon has plans to allow you to order groceries online, then pick them up at drive-up stores. Aside form convenience, the groceries will no doubt be cheap.

Amazon is going to have to muster all the innovation it can find: another competitor, promising even lower prices, has opened in the U.S. asks for a yearly membership fee, like Costco, but promises to find the lowest price on whatever you want, and even tells you how much cheaper it is than what you would get at Amazon.

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July 18, 2015

Online forums could learn from apartment building managers

Lower East Side tenements in New York City

Years ago, when I lived in an apartment building, I was awakened in the middle of the night by someone playing loud music.

I mentioned this to the manager, and he said he would look into it. The next day, he told me that the tenant who disturbed me was being evicted.

I thought this was pretty harsh for one minor incident, and told him so. But his answer was a good one, and it has stuck with me to this day: If you don’t get rid of the bad tenants, then the good ones will leave and you’ll have nothing left but bad tenants.

Employees tasked with running online forums or policing website comment sections know all too well how true this is. If you don’t weed out the trolls and spammers, everyone else shies away and you’re left with a toxic stew not worth saving.

I was reminded of that when I read about Reddit’s solution for its forums devoted to racism and misogyny: don’t ban them, just hide them. So CoonTown and its ilk are thriving with more members than ever, emboldened by tacit approval from Reddit management.

Supposedly, they’ll be harder to find, but if you know what you’re looking for, a search engine will have no trouble ferreting them out.

So what would Reddit look like if it were an apartment building? Maybe the downstairs suites would be blocked off with doors that didn’t have signs on them. You could go down there, but likely wouldn’t because of the thought of it would make your skin crawl.

It sounds like a horror movie: the house with the basement and the horrible crimes that were committed there. I just finished reading a book where one of the characters was accidentally exposed to a movie like that as a baby, and suffered from nightmares well into adulthood.

Sometimes I fear that much of the Internet suffers from the Reddit syndrome. Loud-mouthed louts shout everyone else down, and the promise of open discourse becomes a shattered dream.

I’ve talked to many people who already avoid social media because they don’t want to expose themselves to negativity. To me, their fears seem overblown. Still, the same could be said of neighbourhoods that have bad reputations. They may in fact be not so bad once you get to know them — but perceptions are hard to change once they become established.

I’ve taken jabs at Facebook for its computer algorithms that promote happy-face news. You can see why they do it, though. Facebook is the apartment building where middle-class tenants feel safe, and more keep moving in all the time.

There are some great forums in Reddit that attempt to be helpful. If Reddit turns into a tenement, those are be the parts that will missed.

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July 10, 2015

Online haters have Reddit boxed into a corner

If Reddit were based in Canada, would the police have shut it down and arrested the owners?

Reddit is an online community made up of hundreds of discussions groups, covering everything from kittens to politics. It famously hosts Ask Me Anything forums, where luminaries — including Barack Obama and Bill Gates — agree to answer anything.

My own, admittedly limited, experience with Reddit has found the people who use it to be generally well-mannered, perhaps a bit snarky sometimes, but certainly not offensive.

Unfortunately, there are darker recesses to Reddit, if you have the stomach to explore them. Believe it or not, there is one subreddit called CoonTown, where members routinely spout the most vile racist garbage you can imagine.

The attitude of management is that everyone is entitled to their “opinion” as long as they don’t act on it in a way that leads to a crime being committed. This appears to keep the San Franscisco-based Reddit in line with hate laws in the United States.

Those laws tend to look at whether a crime, such as an assault, was motivated by prejudice based on the victim’s race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. If so, the justice system might go harder on you. In other words, it appears that you can talk about killing black people all you want as long as you don’t actually do it.

The laws in Canada make it unlikely that you could get away with that. The Criminal Code considers it an indictable offence to promote hatred against any identifiable group. You could wind up in jail for up to two years if convicted.

Also, the Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for which a pardon has been granted.” In 2009, the act was used to shut down a website with controversial comments about Roma, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, blacks and Arabs.

This leads me to conclude that Reddit could not exist in Canada — at least not in its present form.

Because they lack similar laws, Americans are reduced to writing articles such as this one — Reddit Is An Incubator Of Hate — that are essentially a plea for sanity. If people are allowed to promote racism, then of course there will be other people who act on it. This shouldn’t be hard to figure out.

Things are so out of control at Reddit, that the CEO was forced to resign after a week of unrelenting attacks over the firing of a popular employee. And, as sadly expected, much of the “criticism” against Ellen Pao was racist and misogynist.

Reddit is steeped in a culture where the people in charge are afraid to do the right thing because the mob could turn on them. Already some members — miffed by even a hint of enforced civility — have moved on to other forums.

No doubt, the owners hope Reddit doesn’t meet the same fate as Digg, which 10 years ago was the most popular forum on the Internet. It fell into disrepute and is now a shadow of its former self. Reddit managers are in the impossible position of needing to find a way to keep everyone happy — including the haters ruining the forum’s reputation.

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