The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

November 22, 2014

Test for promoting gender equality harder than it looks

With video games are already rated for violence, Sweden is looking at taking the next logical step: rating them for sexism.

That country’s gaming industry trade organisation, Dataspelsbranchen, has received a government grant to study how this could be done. Basically, they want to let consumers know ahead of time whether a game they’re thinking of buying promotes gender equality.

One method for doing this would be to apply the Bechdel Test — there has to be at least two female characters with names, and there has to be a scene where they talk to each other about something other than men.

At first, I thought the bar was being set low, especially when my son assured by that the 10-year-old Half-Life 2 does indeed have female characters with names who work together to solve major problems. And he showed me a scene where this does happen.

But then I started applying the test to forms of entertainment that I’m more familiar with. TV and books, for example.

I’ve been binge watching Star Trek The Next Generation on Netflix in the hope of finding an episode that I haven’t seen before. So while viewing an episode where the story centres on the doctor, a female named Beverly Crusher, falling in love with an alien, I kept the Bechdel Test in mind. As it turns out, there are two scenes where she and another female character, a counsellor named Deanna Troi, have long conversations. Unfortunately, they talk almost exclusively about men.

OK, so that show was considered progressive for the time it was made, in the 1980s. Surely we’ve made progress in the intervening 30 years. How about a series that’s being made right now?

I’ve worked in a few newsrooms, and found my female colleagues to be generally feisty and independent, so I figured applying the Bechdel Test to a TV show called The Newsroom would be a cinch.

I watched the latest episode, featuring several strong female characters, going through trials and tribulations associated with the news industry. And while they do all have names, and they do all exhibit fortitude and resilience, not once was there a scene where two or more of them were alone having a conversation.

Could it be that Aaron Sorkin simply can’t imagine what women would talk about if they were by themselves?

So how about books? Authors don’t have to hire actors, so they can create any kind of characters they want.

I’m just about finished reading Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, which was published in 2005. As it turns out, the main character is a 32-year-old woman. But 90 per cent of the rest of the characters are men. The few female characters seldom talk to each other about anything of substance. The closest thing to any kind of depth is in an email exchange with a female friend, but it’s about — you guessed it — a former boyfriend. She has memories of exchanges with a female psychologist, but those centre on her relationship with her father.

Now that I’m aware of this test, I’m seeing entertainment in a whole new light. Our society has come a long way in accepting, and even celebrating, diversity. But we still have many challenges ahead of us.

Image: Beverly Crusher and her alien amour (from Wikipedia).

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November 15, 2014

Why landing a space vehicle on a comet is such an amazing achievement

To get a true appreciation for the scientific feat accomplished with the landing of a space vehicle on a comet, you have to wrap your mind around two astonishing facts — the vastness of the space between here and there, and tininess of the comet itself.

I found two websites that a great job of this.

The first, created by Josh Worth, is called If the Moon Were Only One Pixel: A Tediously Accurate Scale Model of the Solar System. Be prepared to do a lot of horizontal scrolling without much to see but a few minuscule dots in a sea of black. Luckily, the tedium is broken up with the occasional witty observation.

Bearing in mind that the moon is only one pixel in Worth’s model, it would still dwarf Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The moon is 3,475 kilometres in diameter while the comet is a mere four kilometres across. To put it in terms that Star Trek fans would understand, it’s not much bigger than a Federation Space Dock.

What would that look like? As it turns out, Christopher Becke, a high school physics teacher, has created graphics (like the one above) showing not only Star Trek comparisons, but also other science fiction and more reality-based comparisons. The comet could, for example, fit in Manhattan.

One way to think of it would be to imagine two specks of sand a mile apart with nothing in between them. Some microbes on one speck somehow figure out that the other speck exists and fire off a microbe-sized vehicle to hit the other speck. Complicating matters, the two specks are in constant motion at different rates of speed.

And of course there’s that time thing. If you shoot an arrow from a bow, you’ll generally know within seconds whether you have hit your target. But with the comet, scientists had to wait 10 years before knowing whether they reached their goal. And even then they didn’t exactly hit it — they came really close and soft-landed Philae on the surface. Remember when the new version of Battlestar Galactica started up on TV? That’s when this mission began.

Speaking of time, we should also be aware of old the comet is. The pictures transmitted back to Earth may be showing leftover rocks dating from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. How old is that? According to the Cosmic Calendar, if you compressed the history of the universe (13.8 billion years) into a year-long calendar, the solar system would have shown up on Aug. 31. Our age of modern science wouldn’t appear up until Dec. 31 at one second before midnight.

As if the photos posted by the European Space Agency on Flickr weren’t breath-taking enough, the story behind how they came to be makes them all the more remarkable.


November 8, 2014

Twitter alliance takes aim at harassment of women

Pew survey

With the increasing number of reports of high-profile cases of harassment in social media, it might be tempting to believe that we humans are losing our capacity for civility.

I’m not so sure that’s true. Technology provides opportunity for change, but it is not the change itself. There has always been a certain number of jerks among us, but a medium such as Twitter provides them with the opportunity to band together from around the globe and concentrate their efforts.

I mention Twitter, because it has become the tool of choice for those who can’t stand to see an opinion that differs from their own and hope that by making threats or hurling invective they will prevent that view from ever being voiced again.

In some cases, this strategy likely works. For example, I hesitate to even mention the Twitter hashtag gamergate for fear of getting unwanted reaction from the many people who take this controversy seriously. If you’re not familiar with #gamergate, search the hashtag. You might not find this enlightening because no one seems to be able to agree on what exactly the controversy is about, except that it involves video games.

Most will agree, though, that many hateful words have been exchanged, and many have been directed toward a few select victims. In other words, harassment abounds.

Harassment of this type is disproportionately directed toward women, as this survey by Pew Research shows. According to the summary:

Young women, those 18-24, experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26 per cent of these young women have been stalked online, and 25 per cent were the target of online sexual harassment. In addition, they do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general.

In the past, there has been plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest this is the case, but a survey like this makes the problem a lot harder to ignore.

Twitter has a function that allows users to report abuse, but the company has now taken a big step forward by collaborating with a group known as WAM! Women, Action & the Media.

WAM! is running a pilot project to support all Twitter users experiencing gendered harassment and abuse on the platform, including abuse that intersects with racial, lgbt and other kinds of oppression users face on Twitter.

All you have to do is fill out a form.

I had never heard of WAM! before, but browsing their website shows they are about social change. Here is their vision:

Gender equity in media access, representation, employment and ownership — and a world in which a just media is considered essential to a just society.

While based in the U.S., the group has a chapter in Vancouver.

It remains to be seen whether this alliance between Twitter and WAM! will bring about tangible results, but I have my fingers crossed that it will.

For me it’s a question of free speech. People should be allowed to speak their minds without fear of being shouted down by those who disagree with them. It’s difficult not to be cowed into silence when a group of unknown people is threatening to harm you. Twitter, if it is to survive, must build a reputation for being a forum of free discourse — not a forum where only the loudest, most obnoxious voices are heard.


November 1, 2014

Like it or not, Facebook owns the future

Mark Zuckerbertg

When Jian Ghomeshi was fired by the CBC, he turned to the most powerful medium of communication in the world to put out his side of the story.

Yes, I’m talking about Facebook.

Unfortunately for Ghomeshi, this was one of the few smart things he’s done recently. But that doesn’t take away from the force to be reckoned with that Facebook has become.

With more than a billion users and billions of dollars in profits, it is the envy of publishers great and small — whether in print or online. They gaze in awe of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s endless ability to rake in massive amounts of advertising money while all they can hope for is a few crumbs from the table.

From the New York Times to Buzzfeed, editors spend their days trying to outguess the algorithms that push some stories to the top of Facebook feeds while others languish in obscurity. It can make the difference between getting a few clicks on a story and the swarm that comes when a post goes viral.

Zuckerberg loves having news stories on Facebook and he’s all too happy to play — er, help — publishers. So he and his minions have come up with what may be the ideal solution: ditch your website and publish entirely on Facebook.

David Carr of the New York Times outlines how this complete capitulation would work:

One possibility it mentioned was for publishers to simply send pages to Facebook that would live inside the social network’s mobile app and be hosted by its servers; that way, they would load quickly with ads that Facebook sells. The revenue would be shared.

He adds: “Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.”

But what a kingdom! In third-quarter earnings results reported recently, the company posted $3.2 billion in revenue. Nearly $2 billion of that came from mobile advertising. Facebook has grown to more than 1.3 billion monthly active users.

And there’s more to come. Marcus Wohlsen, at Wired, foresees a world in which Facebook controls pretty much everything online.

Along with the news, video is also a big priority for the company. There are plans to compete with YouTube and one deal has already been made for a series of short films based on the Twilight franchise.

I’ve talked about Oculus Rift before, and I still see a big future for this artificial reality technology. Facebook bought it for $2 billion, but will wind up making billions in profits once this catches on with the public.

As Wohlsen points out, Zuckerberg isn’t interested in anything unless it numbers in the billions, whether it be users or dollars.

What do I think about a future for the news and entertainment where Facebook is busy behind the scenes pulling strings? Frankly, I find a bit creepy — although not nearly as creepy as Ghomeshi’s sexual preferences.

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October 25, 2014

CBC's careful reporting a reflection of Canadian values

CBC coverage of breaking news out of Ottawa on Wednesday was praised by many, including media critics in the U.S. who found it a refreshing change from the reckless methods used by American networks in similar situations.

Anchor Peter Mansbridge steadfastly stuck to the facts, refused to speculate, and nuanced updates by informing us of the reliability of their source. He did not jump to conclusions. He did not get ahead of himself. And in doing so provided a great service to our nation at a time of crisis.

The U.S. magazine Mother Jones had this to say:

. . . news of the shootings in Ottawa unfolded live on the CBC much like they do here in the United States: lots of sketchy details, conflicting reports, unreliable witnesses, and a thick fog of confusion. All of that was familiar. What was less familiar was how Mansbridge and his team managed that confusion, conveying a concise and fact-based version of fast-moving events to viewers across Canada and the world.

Media Bistro described it this way:

Mansbridge, in sharp contrast to the frenetic, breathless delivery we’ve come to expect from American news anchors in times of breaking news (including stories of far less significance than the attacks in Canada), was thoughtful, took his time, and seemed at times to pause, and to consider his words before speaking. Just. Imagine. That.

Thinking about the differences in style between the U.S. and Canada, the first thing that came to mind was ratings. The people who run U.S. networks are under enormous pressure to boost their ratings. For them, a crisis like this is heaven-sent: they can pull out all the stops.

This attitude works if you don’t look past tomorrow, and believe that your competitors will follow along. And, to be fair, the CBC — as a broadcaster subsidized by the public — does not feel the same compulsion to be obsessed with ratings and the ad dollars that come along with them.

Even so, you would think that there is at least some segment of the American audience large enough that it would turn to and reward a more thoughtful approach to the news. No one cares or remembers who was first with breaking news. They just want to know what’s happening — what’s really happening. In fact, people are more likely to remember who made the gaffe.

This applies even on a local scale. I wince every time I see a news organization retweet something reported from a police scanner, because this is not a reliable source. The chatter we hear on scanners is of first responders communicating so they can quickly get to the scene of an emergency and deal with it. They sometimes get things wrong, such as the location or how many people are hurt. But they don’t issue corrections — they just go and figure things out when they get there.

You can bet CBC reporters were listening to police scanners as well, hoping to pick up tidbits that might help them understand what was going on. But as Mansbridge demonstrated, they used these sources for tips to be investigated and confirmed, not as news itself. In the U.S,, and sometimes in Canada, when news outlets are scared to death of not matching competitors, reports from the scanner or other unreliable sources are considered fair game.

In fact, the CBC did get scooped, but so what?. As Media Bistro put it:

CBC News was soundly beaten by various journalists on Twitter with word the War Memorial soldier had died, but when time came for Mansbridge to bring this sad fact into his coverage, he warned he had “bad news” to report, and then very carefully explained how CBC came to believe this information was correct.

The events in Ottawa, and before that in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., have brought forth many emotions. Perhaps one of the most enduring will be that of pride in ourselves as a nation for not allowing nutcase gunmen to shake our core values about we react to their threats.

Image credit: CBC

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October 18, 2014

Sorry, folks: turns out crabzilla doesn't exist after all

Have you heard? The Nigerian government has a ceasefire deal with Boko Haram rebels that includes the release of hundreds of abducted schoolgirls.

Or have they? It depends on the source. Some news outlets would have you believe it’s a done deal, while others are more skeptical.

That’s the nature of the Internet. With so many sources for the news, it’s hard sometimes to know what to believe.

For really wild rumours, there is no better site than Snopes for separating the wheat from the chaff.

In recent days, the site has been feasting on the hysteria surrounding Ebola since a few cases cropped up in the U.S.

Among the Ebola urban legends they’ve debunked:

  • A Texas town was quarantined because a family of five tested positive for ebola.
  • Ebola can now be spread by airborne transmission.
  • Ebola victims have returned to life.

But what about stories like the one about the kidnapped schoolgirls? That one at least seems plausible.

To check on those stories, you can now turn to Emergent, a site created by Craig Silverman, who first gained fame by holding newspapers to account with Regret the Error.

(Coincidentally, the latest Regret the Error post is titled Top 5 falsehoods about Ebola.)

Over at Emergent, we learn that the Boko Haram story has been classified at Unverified. Only three sources are for the claim, while another 13 are playing it safe by observing the situation.

I’d say this is a story we can believe when we actually see pictures of the girls being welcomed home by their families.

In many cases, stories are considered Unverified — the claim, for example, that ISIS fighters are being trained to fly captured fighter jets. Or the claim that ISIS has executed two of its own fighters.

Both these claims certainly seem like they could be true. But as it stands, we simply don’t know for sure.

Some stories at Emergent, such as the one about the picture of a 50-foot crab, have been confirmed false.

You might wonder why anyone would believe such an outlandish story in the first place. But admit it: wouldn’t it be cool if crabzilla really did exist? And it’s kinda fun to read about it.

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October 11, 2014

When readers pay, journalism is the winner

The people have spoken loud and clear. They want their news on the Internet, but they don’t want to have to pay for it.

Sites like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed have responded by creating advertising vehicles thinly disguised in a veneer of journalism. But the clickbait journalism needed to bring in advertising revenue winds up lowering the bar and doing little for anyone hoping to become an informed citizen.

At the heart of two recent experiments is a complete ban on advertising in favour of reader support. The Dish, run by U.S. blogger Andrew Sullivan, and De Correspondent, created by a Dutch crowdfunding campaign, both promise substance in their reports, along with independence from advertising.

The Dish, which claims to be both “biased and balanced,” continues to bring in revenue of close to $1 million a year — all of it from about 30,000 subscribers, according to the publisher’s latest report.

Traffic to the site, on the other hand, can vary widely from month to month. Publishers of ad-driven sites would be worried about even a small drop in pageviews, but The Dish can ride them out, knowing that the business will be sustained by a strong base of subscribers.

The silver lining to these ups and downs in traffic is that they do not really have an impact on our finances — because, unlike almost everyone else in online journalism, we’re completely subscription based. That guides us away from the sirens of clickbait, and allows us to provide content that we think matters — even though we know it won’t rack up pageviews.

Meanwhile, back in November 2013, a group of Dutch journalists raised $1.7 million in a crowd funding campaign to create a platform that “focuses on background, analysis, investigative reporting, and the kinds of stories that tend to escape the radar of mainstream media because they do not conform to what is normally understood to be ‘news.’”

In other words, the opposite of popular ad-supported sites.

Like Sullivan, they keep their readers up to date on how the site is doing financially. In fact, they see explanations of how they spend their members’ money to be one of the keys to their success. Their latest report says the publication now has a sustainable membership of 28,000 members who pay €60 ($76 ) a year.

Among their innovations is the strategy of reaching out to the people who “like” them on Facebook. They figure those people are good prospects for memberships, and in many cases this turns out to be true.

The Internet has become so dominated by the likes of Google and Facebook — and their attempts to ram ads down our throats — that it’s hard to imagine even a small corner of it free of hucksterism.

Of all the business models I’ve seen for online journalism, the concept of readers paying to keep out ads is the most promising. Journalists working at these sites can exercise independence and respond to the needs of their readers — even build a relationship with them. And editors won’t have to worry about finding pictures of kittens to suck people into their site, only to leave them with the empty feeling that they’ve once again wasted their time.

OK, so De Correspondent did post one picture of a kitten. (See above.) But it was a good one, and they only did it once.

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September 27, 2014

As always, journalism students are signing up for an adventure

What should I say to a classroom full of journalism students looking for advice from an oldster about preparing for a career?

I do indeed have such a mission coming up, and I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. After all, what they’re going to see is someone whose journalism career crashed spectacularly with the failure of the Kamloops Daily News. My experience, which is sadly all too common, is not exactly a shining example for young people aspiring to a stable, well-paying vocation.

Likely, I’ll start off with some questions: First, who here is even contemplating a career in journalism? From what I understand, about half the students in the journalism program at Thompson Rivers University are actually looking forward to a career in public relations. For anyone wanting to make good money and eventually collect a pension, that would be the wise choice.

Still, when you’re young, you’re more likely to be idealistic, and that characteristic may enough to encourage many of them to try their luck with the perils of journalism. And, truth be told, things haven’t changed that much in the past 30 years or so.

I can still remember one of my journalism instructors in Vancouver telling us that we might be better off applying for jobs as “buggy boys” at Safeway. After all these years, you don’t hear about food stores going out of business very often. And you can still see employees gathering up shopping carts from the parking lots.

Meanwhile, three papers I’ve worked at — including The Daily News — have have gone down the tubes. The others were in Courtenay and Sechelt.

My next question for the students will be: who here is thinking about a career in newspapers? I’ll be surprised if even one hand goes up. I’m thinking that the really ambitious ones will be looking to the Internet and mobile apps. Exciting new ways of telling stories are coming up all the time. There may not be much money in journalism, but there’s plenty of innovation to support it.

In a sense, today’s journalism students will forever remain students. There will never be a time when they aren’t expected to learn new things. Social media and videos are just the beginning. Reporters who know some computer coding will have an edge. And they can presume that it won’t be long before the Internet is old hat. As I predicted last week, the reporters of the future will be giving guided tours from the scene of the news via virtual reality headsets.

And that might just be the point where journalism finds a new and sustainable business model. If virtual reality is half as big as I think it is going to be, people will be willing to pay a lot of money for the experience — money that can go toward paying journalists the decent salaries they deserve.

OK, so there’s the possibility I’m wrong about virtual reality. But if that doesn’t go anywhere, you can be sure that one of the other technologies bubbling below the surface will take its place. I’m thinking of artificial intelligence or augmented reality, for example.

So I’m going to tell the students that while things aren’t looking good right now, they should hold on to their idealism and believe in the future. It will be an adventure for sure, and they’ll be the ones helping to create it.

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September 20, 2014

Virtual reality will make the Internet seem old fashioned

Oculus Rift

The Internet is getting old. Here we are clicking on computer screens, tapping on pieces of glass — reading, looking at pictures, watching videos. This is supposed to be high tech? It’s just a new way of doing old stuff.

Luckily, some truly new stuff is coming our way. Soon, games, entertainment and the news will be a whole new experience.

I’m talking about Oculus Rift, a virtual reality system that was recently bought by Facebook and is being developed in partnership with Samsung. Facebook released a new prototype on Saturday with major audio advances. And Samsung has released Gear VR, a system powered by smartphones.

Oculus started out as an immersive way to play video games, but it turns out that may be just the tip of the iceberg.

How about strapping on the head gear and taking in a concert? You wouldn’t be stuck in a chair like an ordinary member of the audience. You could fly around the venue and look at it from multiple angles, maybe go on stage and get the view of the performer.

Rolling Stone imagined such a thing in an interview with Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab:

“Now, because cameras are so cheap and can be so tiny, you can flood a concert hall with them — imagine that every single person at the concert had these cameras on them. If they were networked, it could all be stitched into one unified 3D model of the concert.” So you could view the show from almost any angle. Add in haptic feedback (which the Rift doesn’t have), and you could even experience the sensation of slamming into someone in the pit.

A demonstration of a concert similar to this took place in April at the Sundance Film Festival.

I press a button, and suddenly I’m in the back of the audience, slowly revolving counterclockwise around this circuit. I’m free to turn in any direction so I can inspect the artists when I move past, or watch Beck on stage.

Or how about if you didn’t want to just watch a TV show, but actually be part of it. One fan has created a VR of Jerry’s apartment from Seinfeld. You can’t interact with the characters, but I predict that won’t be far off.

NBC went on the road earlier this month with an Oculus Rift experience that allows fans to sit in the judges’ chairs in The Voice. Imagine interacting with fellow judges Gwen Stefani, Pharrell Williams, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.

And soon it will be possible for virtual reality to take us on virtual travels. Marriott Hotels is already offering something like it:

Suddenly, I’m drawn into the map. The terrain lines warp around me, creating a tunnel. With a whoosh, I shoot through the wormhole onto a black-sand beach. The sky is blue, the palms are swaying, the ocean laps at the shoreline. For a moment, everything is completely, utterly serene. I am in Maui.

Journalists had better pay attention to virtual reality because people will soon expect more than just being told about an event — they will want to be there and have the reporter give them a guided tour.

If it can be done with travel and concerts, why not with major events such as a royal wedding or the opening ceremonies at the Olympics. Many people would be willing to pay to be virtual spectators.

The next step might be to make it possible for sports fans to take the virtual seat of their choice at the Super Bowl or the World Cup final.

Something similar could be done with documentaries. We could walk among the penguins in Antarctica, run with the rebels in Syria, watch the votes being counted in the Scottish referendum. Or experience life as a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Oh wait — it’s already been done by Nonny de la Peña from USC School of Cinematic Arts:

With his hands tied behind his back and muffled sound deliberately made to sound like he had a hood over his head in his ears, one participant quickly ended up in a stress position.

In our times, people line up to buy an iPhone whose most amazing trick is the ability to swipe an image and make it seem like the wind is blowing through picture of trees. In the future, we’ll feel the chill of the wind on our bodies as we trek along on a virtual expedition at the North Pole.

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September 9, 2014

New technology all about making it effortless to spend our money

Spending is about to become more fun than ever.

Apple showed off its new iPhones and Watch on Tuesday, along with a new payment system called Apple Pay.

They prefaced the announcement by showing a video of how people currently pay for things. Oh, the tedium of digging in a purse to fish out a credit card only to have it not work the first time. If only someone would deliver us from this vexing problem.

Then they showed Apple Pay in action. A tap of the iPhone along with a satisfying beep — and that was it. Ahh, payment satisfaction at last.

iPhone and Watch

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way might be: Holy cow! Money is going to be slipping through my fingers faster than ever!

Actually, that may a side effect that Apple is hoping you’ll overlook. They’ve partnered with all the major credit card companies plus most of the big U.S. banks to take a cut of every transaction. As CEO Tim Cook pointed out, the transaction business numbers in the trillions of dollars every year in the U.S. alone.

He also noted, of course, that Apple is working hard to bring its payment system to other countries. Hold onto your wallets, Canadians!

Oh, and by the way, one of the first things you could buy with Apple Pay is an Apple Watch, which also uses the new system. You won’t even have to bother pulling your phone out of your pocket. A simple flick of the wrist and you’re done.

And Apple’s not the only company coming up with innovative ways to rack up our credit bills. On Monday, Twitter started experimenting in the U.S with a Buy Now button.

If, for example, you see a T-shirt on Twitter that looks cool, there will be no need to ponder whether you actually have room in your drawer for yet another top that will hardly ever be worn.

Just tap a button and buy now!

According to The Associated Press, Twitter’s experiment will include partners such as the musical groups Soundgarden and Panic! At The Disco, retailers Home Depot and Burberry, and nonprofits The Nature Conservancy and GLAAD.

I have to wonder how these initiatives can possibly work. I don’t question the technology, but haven’t consumers already been sucked dry? Isn’t the middle class already up to its eyeballs in debt?

We’ll find out soon enough.

Image Credits: Twitter and Apple

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