newsonaut


The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

September 24, 2016


How the Yahoo hack freed me from its shackles

It has been a glorious morning of liberation, all started by a massive hacking of Yahoo accounts that came to light last week.

In 2014, information was stolen from 500 million Yahoo accounts. I’d say that’s pretty much all of them, so it was safe to assume my account was among the compromised.

In the past my reaction to this kind of news has been to change my password and hope for the best. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I seldom use this account, so why not just get rid of it?

It took about half an hour of battling with Yahoo, but I was finally victorious. At one point I had to change my password. They declared “bastard” to be too weak and wouldn’t accept it. So the victory wasn’t quite as satisfying as I had hoped.

Also, I was informed that while my account was deactivated, it would take 90 days for it to be actually deleted.

“This delay is necessary to discourage users from engaging in fraudulent activity.”

Not only that, but “information may possibly remain in our archived records after your account has been deleted.”

A class action lawsuit started in the U.S. accuses Yahoo of gross negligence over the hacking. Too bad there isn’t one in Canada as well.

In any case, emboldened by new-found freedom from Yahoo, I moved on to Instagram.

I have posted a grand total of five pictures to Instagram. I kept one of Justin Trudeau that I took when he campaigning for leadership of the Liberal party in Kamloops. The rest are no loss.

To Instagram’s credit, deleting this account took only a few seconds.

Then I moved on to LinkedIn. I don’t want to say anything bad about this network, because I believe there are members who genuinely try to help each other. I would be surprised, though, if it ever did anything other than waste my time.

Deleting this account was easy, but I first had to run a gauntlet of guilt. They showed pictures of some of my connections, and pictures of some of the people who had endorsed me. And it did indeed make me feel a little guilty. I would sincerely like to thank everyone who ever endorsed me.

But the guilt soon passed. When I saw the screen that said, “We’ve closed your account,” I pumped my fist in the air.

Now if I could only summon the courage to delete Facebook . . .

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September 17, 2016


Journalists dance to Trump's tune

A Doonesbury comic strip from 1999. Posted by Ziya Tong on Twitter.

The worst thing about Donald Trump being president of the Unitied States wouldn’t be his policies. These would be moderated by advisors, Congress and reality.

The worst part would be having to put up with four more years of media manipulaton and self-promotion. As a presidential candidate, the media is forced to give him free national coverage. As president, his every word would be broadcast around the world.

A prime example of this was the Trump birther announcement last week. He held a press conference ostensibly to disavow conspiracy theories that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He may as well have announced that he no longer believes that the world is flat, but media — especially the 24-hour cable news networks — were all obligated to show up and give live coverage.

The Washington Post called the event “the greatest trick he’s ever pulled.”

After starting an hour late, the “breaking news” consisted mainly of a promotion for Trump’s new hotel and a parade of veterans saying how great he is. The actual pronouncement on Obama’s birth lasted all of 30 seconds and he took no questions.

It was a low moment for politics and political coverage. A nothing-burger filled with falsehoods covered as though it was the Super Bowl. But for Trump, it might have been his crowning achievement: All eyes on him with the chance to direct the play in whatever way he saw fit. The ringmaster — calling the shots in all three rings of the circus. It was peak Trump.

Trump was so proud of this deception that he even tweeted a link to the Washington Post article.

The Columbia Journalism Review put it this way:

Trump has repeatedly played a similar con, dousing journalists in faux access littered with casual lies. This bait-and-switch — on the foundational issue of his political rise, at his gleaming new hotel in the heart of the American political establishment — was different only in its magnitude.

What makes this behaviour all the more galling is that it has been going on for decades. Trump was doing the same thing in 1990s, and journalists were every bit aware even then that they were being had.

Back in 1999, when he was looking at running for president with the Reform Party, the Doonesbury comic strip hit the nail on the head.

Trump is shown talking to reporters at a press conference: “It’s a win-win for me! Because no matter what I do, I get phenomenal, amazing, unbelievable publicity! You have to give it to me! For free! You have no choice! You’re sheep!”

In case you’re thinking we’ll be done with this nonsense once the election is over, have a look at CBC’s poll tracker. As of Saturday, it showed Trump behind Hillary Clinton by just 1.8 percentage points. It also showed him projected to take 259 votes in the electoral college. He needs only 11 more to win.

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September 3, 2016


A beginner's guide to RSS

RSS has been around for about 20 years, making it an old-timer on the Internet, but it has never really caught on as a popular way of reading news.

There are a couple of reasons for why this is so:

1. No one is really sure what RSS stands for, so it remains unfamiliar — unlike other Internet terms such as “email” or “website.” Wikipedia has three explanations — Rich Site Summary; originally RDF Site Summary; often called Really Simple Syndication. And that takes us another down the rabbit hole to find out what RDF means.

To counter this gobbledygook, RSS is often referred to as news feeds, or just feeds. Some websites get even more generic, using the term “follow”.

2. Almost all news sites have RSS feeds, but many make it difficult to find them. Twitter and Facebook icons are everywhere, but it’s rare to see the RSS icon prominently displayed. It’s a dot with two quarter-circles fanning out to the top right, usually on an orange background.

Take the Globe and Mail, for example. The home page has two places where you can either “Follow the Globe” or “connect with us.” You can find icons for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Plus, LinkedIn and Instagram — but not RSS.

They’ve actually got a ton of feeds, but you have to be savvy enough to think of clicking on the Site Map link to find them. There’s an RSS feed for every section.

It’s a shame because RSS has some big advantages over social media. The main one is that you get everything posted by the site in reverse chronological order, and it doesn’t go away until you mark it as read.

Twitter is a like a passing river. You have to keep watching it to make sure you don’t miss anything. Facebook is also like a river, but a weird river that only shows you what it thinks you want to see.

RSS is a like river with a dam in it. The news keeps piling up until you decide to look at it. That gives you a chance to at least scan all the headlines and decide for yourself which ones you want to read. When you’re done, you tap the Mark as Read button and they’re all hidden from sight.

You never miss anything this way, and don’t have to rely on software engineers at Facebook to decide what’s important.

RSS doesn’t have built-in functionality for sharing, but you can still do that via Twitter or Facebook just like you would with any other article you read on the Internet.

If you’re new to RSS, a great way to get started is with Feedly. The site presents a wide selection of popular feeds to get you started — just click on the big Discover and Follow button. You can find all those Globe and Mail feeds by performing a simple search. For sites that aren’t well-known, you can type in the URL and get a result.

You can also sort your feeds into categories of your choosing, and save articles to read later. The service is free for up to 100 feeds. Unless you’re an incurable news junkie, that should be plenty. It’s also available as an app for your phone.

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August 20, 2016


The drive toward driverless cars

Uber is testing self-driving Volvo XC90s in Pittsburgh.

Uber has been testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. The goal is simple: You open the Uber app on your phone, summon a car and it takes you where you want to go. Everything is automated.

This got me thinking about the high price of owning a car and the possibility of a future where ownership is more the exception than the rule.

In Pittsburgh, the test trips are free, rather than the standard $1.05 per mile. An article in Bloomberg quotes Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick:

In the long run, Kalanick says, prices will fall so low that the per-mile cost of travel, even for long trips in rural areas, will be cheaper in a driverless Uber than in a private car.

There’s still a long way to go before this happens. For one thing, the testing in Pittsburgh is being done with a pilot and co-pilot in the front seat. The pilot ensures that the car (a Volvo XC90 SUV) is driven safely, and the co-pilot takes notes on everything that happens.

If all goes well, though, passengers will soon be in the cars by themselves.

While getting costs down is important, the biggest concern is safety. The cars work from extremely detailed maps and react to any change out of the ordinary.

Over the past year and a half, the company has been creating extremely detailed maps that include not just roads and lane markings, but also buildings, potholes, parked cars, fire hydrants, traffic lights, trees, and anything else on Pittsburgh’s streets. As the car moves, it collects data, and then using a large, liquid-cooled computer in the trunk, it compares what it sees with the preexisting maps to identify (and avoid) pedestrians, cyclists, stray dogs, and anything else.

But driving isn’t just about avoiding obstacles. There are also moral and ethical quandaries to deal with.

You might be familiar with the trolley dilemma, where you’re given a choice of allowing a trolley to continue along a track and kill five people or pull a switch so that it goes to another track and only kills one person.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has created a series of puzzles called the Moral Machine. You can take the test, and they’ll gather the data to help program self-driving cars.

In cases where the choice is between killing humans or killing animals, the answer is easier. But before long you’re asked to pick between people with different backgrounds — for example, a doctor and a homeless person.

So far, self-driving cars actually appear to be safer than human-driven cars. Google has done extensive testing, and only recently has one of its vehicles been the cause of an accident when a Lexus bumped into a bus.

Now, you might be thinking: “I’m not going to trust my safety to some high-tech company like Google or Uber that doesn’t know anything about cars.”

If that’s the case, you might want to wait for Ford to roll out its autonomous taxi fleet. The company announced this week that it will have the cars — no steering wheel, brakes or gas pedal — operating in at least one city by 2021.

As self-driving cars reach the point where they are safer and cheaper than what we have now, it’s only a matter of time before they become the norm.

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August 6, 2016


Olympics tape delay is a relic of the past

While Canadians watched the Olympic opening ceremonies live on TV and swapped reactions on Twitter, Americans seethed as they waited for NBC’s notorious tape delay.

Commentary, pictures, even the occasional video were all there under the hashtag #OpeningCeremony — making it all the more obvious to U.S. viewers that they were being left behind.

Americans living near the border could turn to CBC, but most were left to grind their teeth or voice expletives.

NBC’s bizarre explanation was some gibberish about women and reality shows. I’ve read this missive three times and still find it baffling.

More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.

The statement has been called patronizing and straight out of the ’70s.

I’m pretty sure the whole thing comes down to executives thinking the network would get better ratings this way. They know they’re pissing some viewers off, but they figure those people are a vocal minority.

There may be some truth to that, but criticisms over tape delays go back at least six years for both winter and summer Olympics.

People pay plenty for cable TV in an age where it’s more and more tempting to cut the cord and go with streaming services like Netflix.

What stops many people is the idea of losing live (as opposed to tape-delayed) news and sports. The norm these days is instant gratification. And an increasing number of people are becoming tech-savvy enough to find ways of getting around artificial limitations.

NBC ignores this at its peril.

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July 20, 2016


The augmentation of our reality

The Yelp app uses augmented reality to give information about your surroundings.

While playing Pokemon Go out in the neighbourhood recently — for research purposes only, of course — I confirmed that this is more that just a game. It’s the gateway drug to augmented reality.

I’ve had experience with AR before, but never in a way that seemed engaging or worth getting into. The defunct Daily News may have been the first to try popularizing this technology in Kamloops when it introduced Layar — an app that allowed you to watch videos or view photo galleries while pointing your phone camera at designated points in the paper.

It didn’t exactly capture the public’s imagination, and is now but a footnote in the history of our dearly departed daily. If Pokemon Go had been around at the time, things might have been different. The game has made AR fashionable to the point where it is becoming second nature for young people.

The thing is, though, augmented reality has been around for the last few years, and you may have been using it without knowing.

A good example of AR hidden in plain sight would be the geofilters that add fun overlays to your Snapchat pictures. The design and content varies with where you are in the world. Other apps have similar features.

Then there is Google Translate. Fire up the app and point your camera at a sign that uses an unfamiliar language, and it will be transformed into one you understand.

You might also have used AR with the Yelp app. If you’re in a strange city, you can point your camera at your surroundings and information will display about nearby restaurants and bars.

There are plenty of AR-based apps that give you information about your environment. If you’re travelling, you can learn about museums, galleries and other points of interest. It’s like having personal guide.

Golfers can use AR to learn about distances and terrain on the course. But it makes me wonder — would other players object to this as an unfair advantage?

Turning to the night sky, you can view an overlay of constellations and their names, or see which satellites are passing by.

Try-before-you-buy apps look particularly useful. You can, for example, place a virtual couch in your living room to see how it would look. IKEA has been doing this for years. Or you could use the Ink Hunter app to project a virtual tattoo on your body before committing to the real thing.

I’m surprised these last uses haven’t caught on more. But with Pokemon Go blazing new trails, it’s just a matter of time before virtual shopping becomes the norm.

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July 12, 2016


Pokemon Go is coming to a neighbourhood near you

Pokemon Go

Nintendo’s Pokemon Go isn’t officially available in Canada, but that hasn’t stopped Canadians from joining what has become a worldwide craze.

A tweet from Chad Harris of CFJC-TV shows a picture of the back of a pickup truck at Riverside Park with a sign offering to charge your phone for $5. Yes, hunting for Pokemon in augmented reality uses up a lot of battery power.

The park is apparently swarming with virtual Pokemon that you can catch with your device. It is also the site of a Pokemon gym, where teams can lead their Pokemon into battle against each other. There is another gym at City Hall.

Of course we Canadians want to join the fun, but there is a risk — especially if you’re using an Android device to download the app from some sketchy site. There have been reports of these apps being loaded with malware.

It’s safer for iPhone users, but they have to go through the hassle of changing their iTunes account to pretend that they’re based in the United States.

It might not be quite as much fun, but you can get a legitimate preview of the game by downloading an app called Ingress. It also takes advantage of your device’s GPS tracking to find virtual items in the real world.

The advantage of Pokemon Go is that it is a lot like similar games people have played for years — collecting, trading, battling. But with this version, you actually get off the couch.

That has led to dire warnings from people predicting it’s only a matter of time before someone kills themselves because of the distraction of hunting for Pokemons. Vox has an explainer on how the game works plus a rundown on incidents that include finding a dead body and being lured into a robbery.

These are likely the same people who have complained for years about gamers being anti-social and never getting out of the house. Well, now they’re out in the light of day — meeting people and getting exercise.

Actually, it’s good that someone found that dead body. It might solve a crime or bring closure for a family.

And as for the robbery, that’s something that happens all the time in this world. The only reason this one was reported was because the robbers were clever enough to find a way to exploit something new.

The real danger is that people will drain their bank accounts.

Success in Pokemon Go depends of the equipment you’re able to collect at PokeStops around town. If that doesn’t work, you can buy it. So even though it’s free to download and play, the game is making an estimated $1.7 million a day from in-app purchases.

And there are opportunities for Nintendo to make even more money. I can imagine a future update that allows you to set up a PokeStop or gym wherever you want. Businesses that cater to young people might be willing to pay to become designated as a gym where players would hang out.

Already you can set up lures that attract extra Pokemon (and players), but they only last for about half an hour.

The bigger picture is that Pokemon Go will act as an introduction to augmented reality — a newer technology that most people don’t know much about. In the old days, solitaire was installed in computers as a way of getting people used to using the interface.

Once we get used to augmented reality, the door could open to all kinds of implementations we haven’t even thought of. How about Minecraft as the next step?

On a side note, I’m glad to see that it’s Nintendo leading the way. The company has been struggling lately, and I’d hate to see this iconic Japanese company go out of business.

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July 2, 2016


Remember snail mail? It might be going on strike

The idea that Canadian postal workers can possibly gain anything from a strike is enough to make you shake your head in disbelief.

Perhaps most telling is the ho-hum reaction from the public. Until recently, many people were unaware that this was even an issue. For most of us a strike would be, at worst, a minor inconvenience.

Long gone are the 1970s, when postal strikes were feared as a major blow to the economy. Back then, a labour disruption was akin to holding the country hostage.

Still, intractable disputes seem to be a habit at Canada Post. The latest was in 2011 when rotating strikes and lockouts ended with back-to-work legislation and major concessions by employees. Sympathy from the public was underwhelming.

What once made the post office so important was its monopoly on letter delivery. But as we all know, email, electronic billing and direct deposit have decimated revenue from that sector.

According to a 2013 report from the Conference Board of Canada, the only bright spot is an increase in revenue from delivery of parcels due to the popularity of online shopping. Even so, it sees this as a blip and predicts an annual operating loss of $1 billion by 2020.

Parcel delivery is not like letter delivery — it is highly competitive. If a strike takes Canada Post out of the picture, businesses will simply turn to alternative services. And once they move away, it will be tough to lure them back.

Cutting costs seems to be the only way out. A change in government has delayed plans to phase out door-to-door delivery, but now Canada Post wants to reduce labour costs by switching to a cheaper pension plan.

The situation at Canada Post is by no means unique. Post offices in many countries are struggling with how to make the transition to new technology. Part of that transition should involve helping long-time workers land in a good spot.

In this case, a strike would make things worse. What really needs to happen is for employees and managers at Canada Post to work together to find a solution that transcends self-interest. They’re up against something that’s bigger than both of them.



June 25, 2016


The power of the old press led the way for Brexit

National Post got it wrong.

Robert Colvile has written an excellent essay about the role of the media in the British referendum on membership in the European Union. The way he sees it, newspapers — the old media — were the clear winners.

Tabloids and broadsheets alike thundered their positions on the referendum on an almost daily basis. And most of them thundered in favour of leaving. Television, meanwhile, politely gave equal time to both sides. New media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter barely made a ripple.

As an aside, though, it’s sad to note that after the referendum, people in Britain suddenly started using Google to search the phrase: “What is the EU?” It makes you wonder if many them actually understood what they voted against.

Their next step is to search for information on how to get the heck out of England.

Getting back to newspapers — according to Colvile, the Leave campaign targeted the power of the press for a good reason.

The goal was not merely to shape the agenda, but to motivate the newspapers’ readerships which, while smaller than they once were, also are disproportionately important. The best predictors of support for Brexit were age, wealth and class: The older, poorer, and less educated you were, the more likely you were to vote to Leave. That made the Telegraph and Mail’s older audience (average ages 61 and 58 respectively as of 2014) invaluable—just like the Sun’s working-class one.

If that demographic seems eerily familiar, you’re probably thinking about Donald Trump supporters. In the U.S., though, there is a different dynamic with the media. News sites are desperate for clickbait and TV networks are desperate for ratings. That allows Trump to play them like a fiddle. Reporting his outrageous statements is good for business.

Canada seems like a modern oasis of calm by comparison. The old media tried hard to convince us to vote for the Conservatives in the last federal election, but newspapers here have become such a tepid force that they were largely ignored.

(How sad have Canadian newspapers become? The National Post botched its next-day coverage of the referendum with the headline: Polls Point to ‘Remain’. )

In contrast, Justin Trudeau was all over social media and won the hearts of a new generation. Voting among young Canadians increased by 18 per cent.

Still, regardless of the country, we ignore the discontent of the disfranchised at our peril. We need to build economies where all sectors of society benefit. If many people are left behind, if they don’t see any reason to buy into the future, then of course they’ll be tempted to tear it all down.

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June 11, 2016


Apps like flipp could steal flyers away from newspapers

flipp icon

Newspapers took a hit when they lost a big part of their revenue from classified ads to websites like Kijiji and craigslist. They still have flyers to support them, but it’s just a matter of time before the Internet figures out a way to take those away, too.

Apple’s App Store recently featured flipp as an “essential” app — giving it that extra exposure most developers can only dream of. So I had no trouble finding it, installing it on my iPhone, and marvelling at how closely it resembled the real-life experience of using flyers.

The Toronto-based company, founded in 2007 by former Microsoft engineers, claims to be supported by “some of the largest venture capitalists and retail executives in the world.”

At their website you can find the flyers for your location by inputting your postal code. You can sort them by subject, and make “clippings” by clicking on items you’re interested in. In some cases, there is the option of buying the item online.

The app (available for iOS and Android) does all this and more. You can stash away coupons, make a shopping list and scan in your loyalty cards. You can also narrow down the number of flyers to your favourites.

I was impressed, first of all, with the number of flyers available. It appears they have all the major outlets in Kamloops covered.

The flyers are laid out the same way as they are in print. You can flip through them and set aside items that catch your eye. The ability to buy online is convenient — especially since the thing you want might not be available in the local store even if you went there. For clothing, you can be sure of getting the size and colour you want.

Even more impressive is the ability of the app to search for individual items regardless of who is selling them. For example, a search on “broccoli” gives you a good idea of which store has the best deal.

A killer feature would be the ability to sort by savings. Shoppers would love to check out a section called “50 per cent off” — regardless of what it contained.

The thing that bothers me about the app is the presentation of flyers in the same way as they are in the print world. This might be a transition phase, but really there is no such thing as a flyers in the digital world. There are simply lists of things for sale. It’s annoying that the clippings present information in inconsistent ways. The prices, for example, might be shown in different fonts and different sizes or maybe not at all.

For a bargain-hunting app, this seems a bit archaic. I have a feeling we’re stuck with this for now because retailers don’t want to go to the expense of creating a digital layout for their flyers. One day, though, the tables will be turned and we’ll see sale items presented in a way that makes sense for computers — perhaps a gallery that you can flip through and sort. It will be newspapers that have to make do.

And as they say in the description of flipp at the App Store, using print flyers would “cost the lives of many innocent trees.”

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