newsonaut


The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

May 23, 2015


Technology promises relief for families worried about elderly relatives

During the four-hour drive to Vancouver, all kinds of scenarios played through my mind. None of them were good.

My 90-year-old mother had fallen and suffered a big gash on her forehead. She was found blood all over her and taken to the hospital for emergency treatment.

She survived all that and was apparently ready to go home, when my sisters realized she was talking gibberish — random words with no meaning.

Something else was going on. Hospital staff soon determined that she was having a stroke. Worse, there was nothing they could do about it because of the risks involved from the injury to her forehead.

All they could do was monitor her. She might pull through, she might not. And if she did survive, she might never again be able to communicate intelligibly.

As I walked into the hospital room, many family members were already gathered, and I was expecting the worst. Final goodbyes, maybe?

But no, there seemed to be a normal conversation going on.

Mom didn’t know I was coming, so it took her a few seconds realize it was me.

“You didn’t come all the way down here just for this,” she said.

It was hardly the joyous reception a son might have hoped for, but it was classic Mom and I knew the miraculous had taken place. She was OK.

There was massive relief, but of course the story doesn’t end there. How can we prevent this from happening again? Ultimately, she will die as we all must, but as with most families we feel compelled to ensure there is as little suffering as possible.

In a society where people are expected to move to where the jobs are, families have become fragmented by distance — making it difficult to care for elderly relatives who need someone to keep an eye on them.

Even when you’re in the same city it can be tricky if you have a full-time job and children to worry about as well. People in these circumstances are known as the sandwich generation.

The human touch can never be replaced, but technology has come a long way toward filling the gap. A wearable medic alert system, for example, has a button on it that can be pressed in case of emergency. It sets off automatically in the case of a hard fall.

That’s fine for emergencies, but what about the everyday stuff that can lead up to an emergency? An encouraging sign came with the recent announcement of a partnership between Apple, IBM and Japan Post to provide iPads to Japanese seniors loaded with apps that connect them to health services and their families.

The purpose of some of the other apps is bit vague, likely because they’re still under development, but they appear to be oriented toward monitoring and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Knowing that many seniors might be resistant to using iPads, the aim is to make the apps easy for them to use. This in itself could be a big hurdle, since some elderly people simply have no interest in learning how to use anything computer related.

When iPads were first introduced, part of the Internet went berserk with people decrying how it dumbed down computers. At the time I wrote a defence of simplified computing, and received a screed via email foretelling how iPads presaged the doom of human kind.

They have indeed brought about many changes — some good and not so good. But if this experiment in Japan works out, we’ll see that putting useful technology in the hands of people who otherwise have shunned it will improve the lives of two, sometimes three, generations of families.



May 16, 2015


Facebook slaps a happy-face sticker on the news

A Facebook spokesman had an interesting answer when asked about a deal the social media giant made with publishers to post their content — no links, the entire story — in people’s Facebook feeds.

“We’re not trying to go, like, suck in and devour everything,” Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, told the New York Times.

And yet here we have the New York Times, National Geographic and Buzzfeed and others handing over their content to a new Facebook feature called Instant Articles. Not only can you read the entire article on Facebook, but you’ll likely have a better experience than if you read it on any of the publishers’ individual websites.

For one thing, the articles really do appear instantly. There is no wasting of valuable seconds while they download. Plus, they have built-in videos, narration and maps you can play with. These stories are fast and immersive — about as good as it gets.

Currently, they’re only available on the Facebook app for iPhone, but expect that to expand as they grow in popularity.

News sites have long had a relationship with Facebook, but it was more symbiotic. They would post a teaser and readers would click a link that took them to the site so they could read the whole thing. The Guardian, for example, gets huge amounts of traffic to its site this way.

So why give away the whole thing to Facebook? Mainly because the deal allows news publishers to sell ads on the articles and keep all the money they make off them. Or they can let Facebook sell the ads for them in return for a 30 per cent cut. With the promise of exposure to the billion people who use Facebook, selling ads should be easy either way.

It sounds like a sweet deal, but can Facebook be trusted? They have the upper hand in this relationship and could easily force more favourable terms for themselves in the future if it turns out there is a lot of money on the table.

They do this kind of thing all the time with the algorithm they use to decide what gets prominence in your news feed. It’s not the latest articles that show up on top — it’s whatever their data scientists think is most important. And what might that be? Facebook gives hints from time to time, but otherwise it’s a guessing game.

Which brings me back to Chris Cox. His line is that Facebook give users what they want.

In my mind that’s lot different from the mission of high quality journalism, which is to give readers what the need. Sure, it’s great to see happy news about a friend’s vacation, but in a democracy you really need to know about things like government corruption so you can make an informed choice at election time.

I don’t expect Instant Articles to cover those kinds of topics. They say ignorance is bliss, but being well informed means having your view of the world challenged from time to time. We won’t get that from the Facebook version of the news.

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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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