Outer space? What about inner space?

November 11, 2016

Facebook users need to speak up: we don't want fake news

Facebook's global reach, as visualized by Facebook intern Paul Butler in 2010.

If you read — and believed — a news item saying that a candidate was involved in child trafficking, would you vote for them?

I sure wouldn’t. But on other hand, I would have found it hard to believe — especially if this was being said about a reputable charity and if the source of the news was one I had never heard of.

Yet, this is exactly the kind of thing people are reading and believing on Facebook. I know of two people who believed something they read “on the Internet” about the Clinton Foundation being involved in child trafficking.

It didn’t take much for me to track this “news” to an anonymous comment on an obscure forum. But for a lot of people, Facebook is a trusted brand. They don’t think to question what they read there.

The child-trafficking story is just one example of fake news on Facebook. And before you pooh-pooh the influence of Facebook, have a look at the latest statistics from the Pew Research Center.

Almost 80 per cent of Americans on the Internet have a Facebook account. And about three-quarters of those with accounts check in every day. The figures for Canada and much of the world are likely similar.

That is the power and reach of Facebook, something that the company has carefully cultivated over the years, because it help it helps them sell stuff and make money — worthy goals for any business. But on the other hand, they can’t turn around and blithely ignore the fact that if they are influencing people’s ideas about what to buy, they are also influencing their ideas about how to vote.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in denial:

Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.

Emily Bell, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, has a perfect response:

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a picture of himself in quarter-profile, with his toddler daughter Max, as they watched Donald Trump become president of the United States. The smiley emoji on his post says he is “hopeful.” “Holding Max, I thought about all the work ahead of us to create the world we want for our children,” he wrote.

The good news for Zuckerberg is that, unlike most people, he can make the world a better place almost immediately just by taking more responsibility for Facebook’s publishing policies. By acknowledging that Facebook can and should play a more active part in editing—yes, editing—its own platform, and hiring actual people to do so, Zuckerberg will further the civic commons as well as address a growing problem of how people perceive Facebook.

We used to worry about people being uninformed and apathetic. Now we have to worry about them being misinformed and taking action based on misinformation.

I fear we may reach a point where news becomes more disreputable than advertising. At least advertising has to adhere to certain minimum standards of truthfulness. The purveyors of fake news, on the other hand, can crank out all the junk they like and get away with it.

There is hope, though. Facebook did finally back down from allowing race-based advertising. In the end, they had to respond to an outcry from their users, because a tarnished reputation would be bad for business.

If Zuckerberg refuses to do anything about fake news, he risks Facebook eventually suffering the same fate as other platforms that have become abandoned cesspools.

I don’t expect people to leave Facebook in droves any time soon, but in the mean time there are things you can do.

First, understand that everything you read has a source. News articles, even fake ones, are written by someone who works for an organization of some kind. Check out the source. If it’s something you’ve never heard of, and if the news isn’t being carried by an organization you know to be reputable, then chances are it’s not real.

Second, if an item is obviously fake, don’t click on it. A lot of these stories are so outrageous that you can’t help but want to read more — if only for entertainment value. Resist the temptation, because Facebook’s computer algorithm will take your click as a sign you want more stories like that. Don’t encourage them.

Third, if you are concerned about fake news, then say so in a Facebook post. It might not seem like they are listening, but if enough users express a concern, they will have no choice.

According to Forbes, Facebook is the fifth most valuable brand in the world. That could easily change if enough of us no longer trust them.

October 30, 2016

How the MacBook touch bar went from meh to wow

Of course, the touch bar has emojis.

A couple of new computers were announced last week. My initial reactions were wow to the first one and meh to the second one. After some thought, those opinions have completely reversed.

What had me going wow at first was Microsoft’s Surface Studio. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Microsoft has become a major manufacturer of computers. It started with iPad-like tablets called the Surface. Now the product line has grown to the point where the latest Surface looks more like an iMac that you can tilt and use as a giant tablet for your art.

Microsoft has a video showing artists using a stylus and a new gadget called a dial to instantly make beautiful creations. It’s amazing to watch.

The meh settled in when I thought about the cost. Because of the power needed to run the Surface Studio, it costs a lot more than an iMac. Graphic artists, as much as I love them, are a small niche. Graphic artists with big budgets are an even smaller niche.

The price of an expensive new product often comes down if it gains traction in the market place. That might eventually happen with the Surface Studio, but I doubt it.

It turns out the real wow was the touch bar on the new MacBook Pros. With its latest laptops, Apple has removed the F keys at the top of the keyboard and replaced them with a long, skinny touch screen that changes depending on which program you’re running.

For example, if you’re in Photoshop and you want to adjust the colour in a picture, you can run your finger back and forth on the touch bar until it looks right. It’s not just the novelty of using a finger instead of a mouse that’s appealing, it’s the fact that the controls you need are easier to find and more intuitive to adjust.

I can see where this could catch on, especially as developers come up with innovative ways of using the touch bar.

As noted by The Verge, the touch bar is actually a mini version of the Apple Watch. This opens up the possibility of the touch bar eventually running standalone apps that could be used for multitasking.

Many people already work with two screens, but that gets awkward if you’re on the move with a laptop. But imagine this problem being solved if the touch bar could handle things like email and a calendar.

Apple has taken a confusing and seldom used part of the keyboard and turned it into an area with the potential for becoming a powerhouse of productivity.

That alone is worth a wow — but there’s more. The touch bar includes something called Touch ID. According to Wired:

. . . that’s what you can now use to unlock your Mac, pay for items online, and even replace the bulk of your passwords altogether. It can recognize multiple fingerprints, allowing for secure, simple access to multiple profiles on the same device.

Hallelujah for the day we can do away with passwords.

October 16, 2016

No one seems to want poor Twitter

Despite being a household name, and despite efforts at adding new features, Twitter can’t make a profit. This has been going on for several years. So why not just sell the company and pay off the shareholders?

As it turns out, even this is next to impossible.

According to reports, there was a lineup of suitors in recent weeks ready to take over the company. But one by one, they took themselves out of the running. Early rumours had Apple and Google showing interest, but they were quickly eliminated. Disney (the media conglomerate, not the amusement parks) was at one point considered to be a dream buyer, but it soon lost interest.

The last hope was Salesforce, a company that makes money from selling software that manages interaction with customers. They have a market capitalization of $55 billion, so the money was there. But the spirit, in the end, was not.

Twitter is still hoping to find a buyer, but at this point it’s hard to imagine who that might be.

Many people with more insight than me have tried to explain Twitter’s troubles. But the main reason may be quite simple. Twitter is failing for the same reason that Google Plus failed, and for the same reason other social networks have failed. In a word: Facebook.

Think of it this way. Let’s say you want an easy way to keep in touch with friends and relatives. Most likely you would ask them — what’s the best way to keep in touch with you. I’m willing to bet the vast majority of them would suggest Facebook, because that’s where they are already.

Facebook got a big head start, established itself, and relentlessly invested in growth and new features. Twitter and whatever Google is doing will always be second choices.

Apparently, when Twitter was first starting out, Facebook offered to buy them. That’s a likely scenario, given that they have a history of taking over competitors — or at least trying. If they can’t beat them, they try to match them with similar features. A good case in point is the obvious copying of Snapchat, which refuses to sell out.

Twitter is better than Facebook for keeping up with the latest news, but that’s not a feature that’s going to win most people over. While finding news on Facebook happens mostly by accident, this is more than enough for anyone who isn’t a news junkie.

There’s still a chance that Twitter might find a way to innovate its way to profitability. For example, they are now live-streaming NFL football games — a good move to attract young people who are turning away from TV and getting pretty much all their entertainment from the Internet.

I really do hope they find a way of surviving. I would have to go through severe withdrawal if they ever folded.

October 10, 2016

Samsung could find its reputation going up in flames

 A replacement Note 7 that caught fire on a Southwest Airlines plane
A replacement Note 7 that caught fire on a Southwest Airlines plane. (credit: BBC)

Many technology-related news sites like to play up rivalries between companies. Microsoft vs. Google. Facebook vs. Snapchat. Apple vs. Samsung.

Check the comments sections on these sites, and you’ll see that readers often get caught up in it — choosing one side or another. They become particularly incensed about comparisons between Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy line.

But in the case of the fire-prone Galaxy Note 7, there are few defenders. After batteries in the original caught fire, Samsung assured us this was a glitch, that the safety of customers was paramount, and that it would issue free replacements.

Now there are reports the replacements are also catching fire.

When The Verge reported that another U.S. phone company had stopped issing Galaxy Note 7 replacements, one reader responded: “Samsung is like the tech industry’s Donald Trump.”

Seems like a low blow, but it’s close to the truth. Samsung rushed a product to market without proper quality control, and now the whole company will suffer.

Ina Fried writes for Recode:

Samsung needs to quickly shift its attention from trying to resuscitate this phone to salvaging its company’s reputation.

Many people hearing about this debacle are going to be left with the idea that Samsung can’t be trusted, and will be hesitant to buy any of its products. Samsung has halted sales and exchanges of the Galaxy Note 7 globally, but has said precious little to allay our concerns.

“Consumers with either an original Galaxy Note 7 or replacement Galaxy Note 7 device should power down and stop using the device,” the company said.

Not exactly inspiring.

Fried also points out that, despite what billions of dollars in Samsung marketing might have you believe, that are plenty of other choices if you’re looking for an Android-based phone.

Respected sites such as Ars Techica actually have headlines saying “don’t buy a Galaxy Note 7.” They feel it’s their duty to issue this advice as a way of protecting their readers. They helpfully provide a list of alternatives. Among them is the iPhone from Samsung’s biggest rival, Apple.

In recent years, iPhone fans have sided with Apple in its accusations that Samsung has blatantly copied many of the iPhone’s features. After a Galaxy Note 7 caught fire on a Southwest Airlines plane, some joked that owners of these phones should be reqired to take separate flights. But few, I would hope, see anything funny about people being placed at risk of injury.

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 . . .

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 United 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 manipulation 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.

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.

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.

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.

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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by Mark Rogers © 2010-2019