by Mark Rogers

April 30, 2016

Linking into the future — from robots to virtual reality

A virtual reality screenshot from Surviving Solitary. From the Globe and Mail.

Welcome to a sprinkling of links — all pointing toward what appears to be our inevitable future.

Geoff Watts, having reached a certain age, writes about life with robot companions. It won’t be long before mobile computers designed to look human are looking after the elderly and infirm.

Would we be able to get used to that? The answer may lie in research into our relations with animals. Our pets are not human, but we sure treat them as if they were.

Who hasn’t shouted at a failing machine? The first vehicle I owned was a decrepit van that struggled even on modest inclines. More than once when driving the wreck I found myself putting an arm out through the window and using the flat of my hand to beat the door panel – like a rider on a horse’s flank. “Come on, come on,” I shouted at the dashboard. Only later did I contemplate the absurdity of this action.

Speaking of people over 65, they’re more adaptable to technology than you might think. A survey in the United States shows that since 2011, people in this age group using social media has tripled from 11 per cent to 35 per cent. At this rate, it won’t be long before seniors have caught up with young adults (18-29), who are at 90 per cent.

One of the old-timers among social media, Twitter, has moved to a different category in Apple’s App Store. It’s gone from Social Networking to News. So what’s up with that?

Despite becoming a household name, Twitter is struggling to find a way of staying afloat — or at least make enough money to satisfy shareholders. Skeptics say the move is a way of highlighting the Twitter app as the top download in the News category.

But there might be more to it. Twitter is much loved by journalists and news junkies because it is a reverse time line. They’ve been fiddling with this formula lately, but basically you can count on the top item being the newest.

Regardless of whether the top tweet is from a friend or a major network, you can always count on getting the latest. For many of us, that’s the definition of news — so it makes sense to be in the News category.

Meanwhile, other social media are doing just fine. Among the 10 most valuable private companies in the world — as listed by the World Economic Forum — are Snapchat and Pinterest.

Number one, by the way, is Uber, the ride-sharing service that’s disrupting the taxi industry. Condolences from the news industry.

These start-ups get a lot of attention, but it’s good to see mainstream media investing in technology that keeps them relevant. A good example is the Globe and Mail’s virtual reality experiment called Surviving Solitary.

Using a virtual reality headset, you can experience what’s it’s like to be imprisoned in solitary confinement. The New York Times and the Guardian have similar projects.

I foresee a future where virtual reality enables us to experience the news first-hand — not just an artist’s rendering. We might, for example, be able to explore the aftermath of an earthquake half-way around the world.

Of course, by the time that becomes commonplace, I’ll need a robot companion to fetch my headset for me.

April 23, 2016

Netflix is a good deal, even if you have to follow the rules

Netflix, showmi and CraveTV

Some Canadians are acting like spoiled children over the fact that Netflix is actually enforcing its own rules.

No, you aren’t allowed to use VPN to watch content reserved for other countries. This is in the terms of service you agreed to when you signed up for Netflix.

But many Canadians went ahead and paid for VPN service anyway, somehow thinking that it was OK to break their agreement with Netflix. I guess some of us figured that Netflix wasn’t serious, that they were just paying lip service to their own agreements with content providers.

Now it turns out they were serious after all. If you try using a VPN to watch shows on the U.S. version of Netflix, you get blocked.

(VPN, for the uninitiated, stands for virtual private network. It allows you to pretend that you are accessing the Internet from another country, thus circumventing restrictions based on geography.)

Outraged subscribers haven taken to social media to announce that they are leaving Netflix. How dare they treat us like second-class citizens.

Second class? That reasoning comes from that the difference in the number of shows offered to Americans vs. Canadians — despite being charged about the same amount. In the U.S., you get to choose from 7,000 shows. In Canada, it is a mere 4,000.

Never mind that 90 per cent of it is junk that you would dream of wasting your time on. Never mind that you could never watch that many shows in a lifetime. Apparently, there are a few gems that they get, but we don’t. It also works the other way around from time to time — but never mind that, too.

This leaves me to wonder where the Netflix quitters intend to go. There are a couple of Canadian streaming services— Showmi and CraveTV. They cost a bit more and rarely produce excellent original content of the kind that can be found on Netflix.

Cable TV is still as big a rip-off as ever, even with new regulations forcing cable companies to offer a $25 package. That’s three times what you pay for Netflix, and the shows — if you find any you like — are swamped with annoying ads. You would be further ahead, in terms of value and choice, paying for all three streaming services.

Neflix CEO Reed Hastings calls the complainers “a very small but quite vocal minority. It’s really inconsequential to us.”

I’m inclined to believe him. All you have to do is look at the data. A total of 190,000 Canadians cut the cable in 2015 — an 80-per-cent increase over the year before. The two main reasons are the high price of cable and the convenience of Netflix.

April 9, 2016

O Brave new world that has no ads in't!

Brave logo
The icon for Brave

The controversy over ad blocking flared up when Apple made it possible for iPhone users to download apps that delete advertising from websites. There was a surge in interest, but it levelled off and publishers breathed a sigh of relief.

But now along comes Brendan Eich with a plan to not only block ads but replace them. He claims this will help publishers, but they aren’t buying it.

Eich was previously best known as the inventor of JavaScript, a programming language that brings interactive elements to websites. He was also the co-founder of Mozilla, a non-profit group that develops the Firefox browser as an open source project.

His latest project is a new web browser called Brave. He would like to convince you to use Brave instead of Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari or even Firefox. And why would you do this? The promise is super-fast browsing because all ads and trackers are blocked be default.

Of course, there are already extensions and plug-ins that do this, but the plan is for Brave to go a step further and replace those ads with ads of its own. Somehow these will be better ads — less intrusive and less of a drag on page loads.

Publishers are upset. The way they see it, advertisers paid for that spot on their site, and they don’t want it taken over by someone else. The Newspaper Association of America, which includes some papers in Canada, has declared it “blatantly illegal.”

Our sites and mobile applications provide news reporting, photojournalism, video content and feature writing that is researched, reported, edited and produced an extraordinary cost. Our industry spends more than $5 billion per year on reporting in the United States alone. We distribute that reporting online for free or at highly subsidized rates, in no small part due to revenue from online ads.

I agree with the blatant part, but I’m not so sure about illegal. Replacing someone else’s ads with your own is an audacious move. Still, Eich has an answer.

His first assertion is to point out that not all ads are replaced: “We do not tamper with any first-party publisher content, including native ads that do not use third-party tracking.”

In sum, and contrary to the misstatements of the NAA letter, Brave is the solution, not the problem, for users and publishers. We provide speed, privacy, protection from malware, and a new, anonymous payment model that helps the whole industry and publishers in particular, compared to the status quo.

Basically, he’s saying that browsers and other software have long been able to take bits and pieces of web content and rearrange them the way we like. A good example is RSS feed readers. They pull in content from all over the web, allowing you to read content without even visiting the website it comes from.

It’s hard to decide which side to take in this battle. Brave is promising publishers 55 per cent of the revenue from ad replacement. Given their strong opposition, publishers obviously don’t see that as a good deal for them.

This whole thing would have worked out much better if Brave had negotiated an agreement with publishers before going public. If publishers were on-side, they would actually be encouraging people to use Brave.

As it stands, this could turn out to be a tempest in a teapot if few people actually download Brave and use it. Google successfully used Chrome to push aside Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to become the most widely used browser. Safari is popular on mobile, thanks to being the default on iPhones. And Firefox still has many fans with its emphasis on privacy.

It’s hard to imagine Brave making much a dent in that kind of competition without the support of those it claims to help.

April 2, 2016

A text editor that restricts your vocabulary might be a good idea if it actually worked

I was going to write a review of a free new app called Cleartext, but that plan fell apart — mainly because it’s almost impossible to type in more than a few words without getting blocked.

Cleartext allows you to use only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. The idea is that anything you write with those words will be instantly understandable by anyone.

I thought I’d be a smarty-pants and write this blog post in Cleartext. I wanted to start with something like: “I’m writing this post in a text editor . . .” Right away it wanted me to use “I am” instead of “I’m.” Fair enough. But then it wouldn’t allow either “text” or “editor.”

In fact, it wouldn’t even allow me to type in a sample sentence on the app’s website.

Still, I was intrigued because Cleartext is based on a the idea behind a book by one of my favourite cartoonists, Randall Munroe of XKCD fame. He has a book called Thing Explainer that takes really complicated subjects and explains them using only the 1,000 most common words.

A great example is Up Goer Five — a diagram of a rocket ship with all the parts described in a way that a child could understand.

I was also reminded of the story behind Green Eggs and Ham. On a bet with his publisher, Bennett Cerf, author Dr. Seuss restricted the vocabulary of the book to just 50 words. It was published in 1960, and remains one of the most popular children’s books ever.

So there’s nothing wrong with the inspiration behind Cleartext. With a few tweaks, it might actually be useful. (It doesn’t even accept some of the words used by Munroe — “escape,” for example.)

The downside is that restricting your vocabulary can rob your writing of richness and precision. Given a choice, I would rather use one word that means exactly what I want it to mean. The alternative is to use more words that give only an approximation of the meaning.

I saw an exchange on Twitter recently about the meaning of “electrocution”. Look it up on Google and the first result will be an excerpt from Wikipedia explaining that it means “death caused by electric shock.” It’s actually based, in part, on the word “execution.”

Still, it’s quite often used to mean a bad electric shock that requires hospitalization. All you have to do is scroll down a bit in the search results to find news stories that use this meaning. From Global News, for example, we learn that: “Man suffers significant burns during electrocution incident.”

Since he didn’t die, we can’t really say he was electrocuted. But language has a way of evolving, so purists may have to get used to its secondary meaning: “The word is also sometimes used to describe non-fatal injuries due to electricity.”

I can let that one pass but will always cringe when I see “lay” misused. I constantly hear about people “laying” on the bed, or deciding to “lay” low. My question is: what are they laying? Bricks? Eggs?

When you lay, you have to lay something. If it’s just something you’re doing yourself, then “lie” is the word you want. I wonder if we can blame this state of affairs on Bob Dylan.

In 1969, Dylan started singing, “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed.” I’m pretty sure he just wanted her to lie down. But I have to admit, “Lie, lady, lie” would never have caught on.

Bonus link: Ever wondered how many words you know? Try Test Your Vocab.

March 26, 2016

Poor little Tay was easy prey


I’ve only ever followed one Twitter bot, and even then only briefly. Some had created a Twitter account and programmed it so that it automatically replied to people who had misspelled “sneak peek” as “sneak peak.”

The last tweet from Stealth Mountain was delivered in January 2014 to @CBSBigBang, and it said the same thing it always did: I think you mean “sneak peek.”

The funny part was that many people took this correction personally and answered the bot with comments ranging from peevish to vitriolic.

In the past few years, Twitter bots have grown in popularity and complexity. There’s a whole community of bot makers that you can follow with the hashtag #botALLY.

A bot created by Microsoft (“her” name was Tay) managed to make headlines last week when it started spewing wildly inappropriate language after just one day of existence. @TayandYou was supposed to be the simulation of a nice young woman, but instead sounded more like a racist, sexist troll.

How did this happen? The short explanation is that the bot’s artificial intelligence was designed to learn from interactions with other Twitter users. They taught it to use this language.

That might lead you to believe that the world is an awful place where not even innocent Twitter bots are safe. But Microsoft saw this as not just an experiment in technology but also in cultural environments.

From the Official Microsoft Blog:

Tay was not the first artificial intelligence application we released into the online social world. In China, our XiaoIce chatbot is being used by some 40 million people, delighting with its stories and conversations. The great experience with XiaoIce led us to wonder: Would an AI like this be just as captivating in a radically different cultural environment?

So a similar bot survives and thrives in China, but crashes and burns in the United States.

OK, you might be thinking, so maybe the world isn’t such a terrible place after all — just one particular country. I’m not sure that jives with reality, though. Americans I’ve met seem open and generous. It’s possible they lead secret lives as Internet boors, but I don’t think so.

A more likely explanation could be that Americans like to game the system. They live in a free-for-all capitalistic society where you need to have a pretty good idea of how the system works if you want to get ahead. Without much of a social safety net, the penalty for not knowing can be severe.

It seems that within hours of Microsoft’s bot being released, some people figured out how to game it with the command: “Repeat after me.” From there it was easy to take advantage of a vulnerability in the artificial intelligence. Microsoft engineers thought they were smart, but others proved themselves smarter.

The result is that Microsoft has shut down @TayandYou as it ponders ways to make improvements.

The company might want to start by consulting the veteran bot makers at #botALLY. They’ve been down this road already, and have vowed that their bots will be well behaved. For one thing, they share an open source blacklist of slurs.

Of course, the bot makers in this group also enjoy relative anonymity. Microsoft bots will always have a big target on their backs.

March 19, 2016

For the first time, I'm cheering for Hulk Hogan

Hulk Hogan
Hogan in 2005 / Wikipedia

Hulk Hogan is not one of my favourite people, but I’m glad he won his case against Gawker. We might not care much about the privacy of a larger-than-life celebrity, but we should all care about the example this case sets for our own privacy.

Gawker posted a video of Hogan having sex with his friend’s wife. It’s tawdry, salacious and appeals to the basest of human instincts. So of course it drew millions of viewers.

A Florida jury decided this was a violation of Hogan’s privacy and awarded him $115 million.

In Canada, Hogan would have had a clear-cut case — you can’t distribute someone’s private image without their consent. Although this law is aimed at protecting young people from cyberbullying, there is no reason why it wouldn’t apply to celebrities as well.

In the U.S. there is a grey area that can be argued. Hogan’s actions took place in a private setting and he claims he no idea that he was being recorded. Still, he is a public figure who often reveals details of his private life for self-promotion.

Gawker’s lawyers have argued that within this context, it is reasonable for other parts of Hogan’s life to be revealed.

Within the letter of the law, Gawker may have a good point. The case is going to appeal, so we will be hearing a lot more about a public person’s right to privacy.

From an ethical point of view, though, I hope juries continue to uphold the principal of privacy. If they do, it will mean that the bar is set high for what is considered to be off limits. And that creates more protection for all of us.

Gawker has tried to argue that this a freedom-of-the-press issue. The implication is that if the state impinges on their freedom then it’s a slippery slope to everyone losing their freedoms.

But here’s the thing — if Gawker published a video of the president accepting a bribe, could they be sued for invading his privacy? The answer should be no. Not only is the president a public figure, but his actions in this case would be in the public interest.

That’s a lot different from pandering to prurient curiosity, and juries are smart enough to understand this.

March 12, 2016

One simple step to a more secure computer: uninstall Flash

Many of us are blissfully unaware of the existence of the Adobe Flash Player as we browse the web — until we’re hit with a notice telling us need to download and install it.

There are still videos, games and even entire websites that won’t work unless you have Flash installed. Just try playing Farmville on Facebook without Flash. This is the message I got: “If your game does not load within 10 seconds, you may need to upgrade your version of Flash. Please do so by clicking here.”

I did not click here, nor will I ever. Flash has been uninstalled from all my computers, and it’s not coming back.

Flash is riddled with security holes that require constant downloads and updates if you are to have any hope of avoiding an exploit. For me, it’s just not worth the hassle.

Last week, yet another vulnerability was exposed, and already bad people are taking advantage of it. What are they doing? I don’t know and I don’t want to find out the hard way. Typically, security breaches involve theft of bank account numbers, credit card information or passwords.

Anyway, if you really need to play Farmville on Facebook, there is a way to do it securely. Google Chrome has its own version of Flash baked into the browser. As far as I know, it’s safe from attacks.

Eventually, Flash will be phased out as newer, more secure, technologies take over. But it’s a slow process, especially for companies that have a lot invested in doing things the old way.

The good news is that you seldom need Flash for videos any more. Major sites like YouTube have converted all their content to modern standards.

So why not take the Flash-free challenge? Type “Flash uninstaller” into your favourite search engine and follow the top link. The instructions on Adobe’s website are easy to follow.

Once you’re done, your computer will be safer and chances are you’ll never miss it.

February 27, 2016

Better legislation needed to deal with online harassment

In recent weeks, the phrase “reasonable fear” has become controversial in Canada. That’s because it is held as a standard in criminal harassment cases.

In Ontario, a man was brought to trial on a charge of harassing two women via Twitter. There was no doubt that the language he used was vile and hurtful. But because the women responded in kind, the judge ruled that they while they may have been concerned or annoyed, they could not be said to be fearful.

It’s an interesting ruling because it places “reasonable fear” in context. There is no hard and fast definition.

But it could also mean that people being harassed online will be afraid to stand up to bullies. It appears that fighting back is all it takes to get them off the hook.

In B.C., charges were considered against a man who created a website with the stated goal of ruining his ex-wife’s reputation. On the surface this seems to be blatant case of harassment, but charges were not approved in part because the couple involved live in two different countries — Canada and the United States.

The thinking here appears to be that the woman should have no fear of physical harm because of the distance between them. If that’s the way the law is being interpreted, then it needs to be changed. Psychological harm needs to be taken into account.

Canada recently passed legislation aimed at cyberbullying that makes it against the law to distribute someone’s image without their consent. I’m not sure why it doesn’t apply in this case. Clearly, the ex-wife did not consent to having her pictures on the revenge site.

West Coast LEAF, a legal support group for women based in Vancouver, advocates extending the law to criminalize hate speech against women. The group says that 90 per cent of online bullying is aimed at women and girls, and has coined the term cybermisogyny to describe this behaviour.

They also advocate giving judges the power to make orders to protect victims from ongoing harassment. That kind of power might have simplified how authorities dealt with the revenge site — a judge could simply have ordered that it be taken down, at least as an interim measure.

We can’t ignore situations like this. Online communication has become an integral part of our lives, and we need to ensure that it is used safely and responsibly. There is nothing special about the Internet that allows it to be used in ways that would be otherwise unacceptable.

February 20, 2016

Four reasons you should be on Apple's side

The FBI has a court order that would force Apple to create special software that would allow the agency to get into an encrypted word iPhone that was used by one of the two terrorists involved in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

Apple is fighting the court order. Here’s why you should hope they win.

Your smart phone is a mini computer packed with sensitive data

Many people shrug off the idea of police or government officials having access to their phone or computer because they believe they lead mundane, law-abiding lives. But if you think about it, there is a lot of stuff you would likely prefer to keep to yourself. Some examples:

  • Contacts: You would not only give up information about yourself, but also friends, relatives and colleagues.
  • Photos: Yes, even those ones you didn’t dare post on Instagram.
  • Purchases: Think about all the books you’ve ever bought — were any of them politically incorrect?
  • Dealings with the government: It might turn out that you owe more income tax than you thought you did.

This doesn’t just affect bad guys

If Apple creates this special software for the FBI, there is no guarantee they won’t use it on other phones as well. How would we ever know? Also, what’s to prevent this program from slipping out into the wild where it could be used by criminals? All it would take is a corrupt insider or a sloppy technician.

This isn’t just a problem for the United States

If the FBI gets its way, it will be just a matter of time before law enforcement agencies in other countries demand the same. Even totalitarian states such as China have so far been holding back. Success by the FBI will open the floodgates. In Canada, you can bet the RCMP and CSIS are very interested in the outcome of this case.

Apples’s best interests align with those of the public

A big part of Apple’s business is selling hardware and software. We give them money and in return we own what we paid for and can do with it as we please. Companies such as Google and Facebook offer “free” services, but we have to give up some of our privacy in return. This may be acceptable in some cases, but it’s good to at least have the option of doing business with a company that is willing to stand up to the government to protect our privacy.

February 6, 2016

Good riddance to comment trolls

The Victoria Times Colonist is the latest in a long line of news sites that has closed down its comments sections.

Editor-in-chief Dave Obee says trolls have ruined hope for anything resembling civilized debate.

Stories about the homeless bring vitriolic comments. Anything about First Nations will bring comments that reveal a staggering, sickening level of racism.
Articles about people who have bared their soul to tell their stories, in the hope of helping others, have brought calls for the person to commit suicide. Home addresses have been posted by people trying to harass others.

There may have been a time when readers would have been disappointed, but not so much any more. There seems to be more a sense of relief.

Reaction published in letters to the editor includes “bravo” and “thank you.” And I can see why. The bad commenters have shouted down reasonable people to such an extent that real discussion has died.

In fact there are now paid trolls whose job it is lurk in comments sections and hurl invective at opposing opinions. It’s their job to kill debate, so the people who employ them can carry on with as little scrutiny as possible.

On a small site, the few comments that come in can be moderated without a lot of effort. In those cases, they work. But on larger sites, it’s too much — especially when trolls deliberately target them.

One letter writer pointed out that turning off comments hides the hate but doesn’t make it go away.

And Toronto Star columnist Desmond Cole says we still need to confront discrimination and oppression in real life.

The instinct behind the closing of comments sections is perfectly understandable, but looking away from the worst in our culture is generally not a path to progress, and can leave vulnerable people at the mercy of the haters.

He’s right, of course, but I don’t agree that by turning off comments we “dismiss oppression.” Haters feed off each other and reach consensus that what they say is acceptable. It’s not, and they need to know this.

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by Mark Rogers © 2010-2019