Outer space? What about inner space?

July 31, 2017

How my web skills helped cultural tourism in Tanzania

The three weeks I spent in Tanzania as a volunteer web designer in the Leave for Change program were a perfect fit for me. Except for Joomla, but even that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

When I first heard about the program at Thompson Rivers University, I was working as an auxiliary, which meant I wasn’t qualified to apply. It was also soon after having been laid off my job of over 20 years at the Kamloops Daily News. The family financial picture was uncertain, to say the least.

But three years later, I was on full-time and my wife agreed that this too good an opportunity to pass up.

I went to the Uniterra website to check out Leave for Change openings and was surprised to find a couple of openings for web designers. The one in Tanzania seemed closer to what I was doing in TRU’s marketing and communications department, so I made it my first choice when applying.

A few months later I was on my way.

Looking back on it, I can’t really say why I was so nervous about going. I worried about every little detail, even though I had been assured by other volunteers that the organization would take good care of me. And in fact, they did.

I was greeted at the airport and taken to a beautiful bed-and-breakfast in Arusha, a city near Mount Kilimanjaro. In fact, I viewed this fabled peak from the airplane on the way in. It was an impressive sight.

In spite of a warm welcome, I found myself overwhelmed by the foreign-ness of the place. The closest that I have come to a similar country was Sri Lanka back in 1982. I was a lot younger then, and a lot more fearless.

I felt not so much cultural shock as cultural overload. There was just so much to take in.

Needless to say, I adapted. And what helped — as I mentioned at the beginning — was the fact that my assignment was a perfect fit. The work set out for me on the Tanzania Cultural Tourism website was a lot like the work I’ve been doing for years at TRU.

Updating. Coding. Editing. Organizing.

It all came together because it was stuff I was already used to doing. The upside to being an old pro (the downside being that you’re old) is that you have confidence that you can solve pretty much any problem that gets thrown your say.

The first problem, and the biggest, was trying to figure out Joomla. This is a content management system along the lines of WordPress. Unlike WordPress, it is poorly documented and ugly as sin.

At first I struggled to do the simplest tasks. How do you update an article? It can’t be that hard. One thing that helped immensely was a theme I found for the back end that at least cleaned up the clutter and made the interface look like something that was designed in this century.

I persevered and eventually discovered how to do all the things I needed to do. The key was creating my own documentation. I wrote down where everything was, along with step-by-step instructions on how to get stuff done.

So how was this a blessing? By teaching myself I was better able to teach others.

The bulk of the assignment entailed updating a website that hadn’t been updated in five years. A lot had changed, and a lot hadn’t been coded correctly in the first place. It was a big job.

But the other half of the assignment, which in some ways was more important, was to leave behind the knowledge I had gained. Those step-by-step instructions I created for myself forced me to break things down into manageable bits of training for three staff members of the Tanzania Tourism Board.

They had initially wanted me to work with their IT department on training. But I assured them that using a CMS to update a website was no more difficult than using Microsoft Word to update a document.

They were pleasantly surprised to learn that I was right.

The real test, of course, will be to see whether they actually do keep the site up to date now that I’m back in Canada. They have my email address, and I offered several times to give them guidance if they need it.

My fear is that the staff is quite small, and even with the best of intentions they just might not find the time to do the updates. Other things might take priority. We’ve all been there.

Regardless of the outcome, I’m satisfied with what I accomplished in 12 working days. I did as much as humanly possible for a good cause.

Cultural tourism, which I had never heard of before, is a great idea. Local groups around the country organize tours of their village or region, and apply to the Tanzania Tourism Board for support. They must meet strict guidelines.

I saw one such enterprise in a place called Tengeru. The people there were incredibly friendly. To a certain extent, it was rehearsed — how could it not be? — but I also felt a genuine warmth.

The day consisted of two main parts: a coffee tour and a canoe ride at a nearby lake. Our guide had a great personality and proved to be quite knowledgable. His English was impeccable. The fact that he had experience guiding tourists on Kilimanjaro probably didn’t hurt.

I learned where coffee comes from, and had a lot of fun doing it.

But the best part was knowing that most of the money people spend on these tours (I met three Americans and three Belgians while there) stays in the community for local initiatives such as education and health care.

The website I worked on helps promote these tours. Visitors and tour operators can refer to it and find something that suits them. Pretty much everyone who visits Tanzania comes for Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti or Zanzibar. But they often have a few days where they are at loose ends, and these cultural tours are a great way to fill the gap.

If I was even in some small way able to keep these tours thriving, I will indeed be quite happy.

July 26, 2017

A day in the life of a web designer in Tanzania

First, you have to get there. That means surviving wall-to-wall people at Addis Ababa airport.

But it’s all worthwhile because you start your day with a glorious sunrise like this.

Or on a sunny day, like this.

I stayed in a nice little bed-and-breakfast type place.

It was called Adia’s Place. Adia made me breakfast every morning, except for a couple of days she took off to have a baby.

This dude did the laundry and other stuff.

This guy drove me to work every day.

Why did I need a driver? Because you never knew who might be lying in wait at the side of the road.




So we had to drive fast.

I didn’t work in a clock tower, but it was near a clock tower.

So here’s the building where I actually worked.

I shared a tiny space with other volunteers.

It seemed even smaller when these guys moved in.

And this guy.

Luckily, we had some other guys building new furniture for us.

The boss was kind of grumpy.

And this guy was kind of shifty.

I never did find out what these guys did.

After working really hard, I got a promotion and moved into this office.

On coffee breaks, we had fresh coffee. Really fresh.

First, we would pick the beans.

Then we would dry the beans.

Then we would shell them.

And roast them.

And, of course, grind them.

Finally, we had a nice drink of coffee.

By the time that was over, it was time for lunch. We went to a nice place by the lake.

And had a hearty meal for $3.

For dessert, it was bananas.

Sometimes, we would have company for lunch.

And more company.

By the time I was done lunch, it would be time to go home.

The wildebeest crossings could really slow you down.

But the turtles were even worse.

Finally, I made it home.

And had that great feeling that I had found my TRU

December 18, 2016

Three steps to freedom in web design

One of the coolest things about Resilient Web Design is that it is a web book. Yes, entire book with chapters and an index, created first and foremost for the web. It looks good and reads great on any device.

But a book is nothing without content, and this one delivers. Mostly, Jeremy Keith presents a history of web design, but along the way we learn about the founding principles of the web and the philosophy they infuse in everything we do today.

It’s taken awhile, but we’re finally reaching the point where it’s considered normal to design a website so that anyone, armed with any device, can use it. Knowing the history of the web, it’s easier to understand past mistakes. It’s also easier to understand why we need no longer repeat them.

Keith’s big takeaway is his three-step approach to web design:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

In many cases, the simplest technology might be nothing more than semantic markup. If someone can visit your site and get want they want with no CSS or JavaScript, count that as a victory for the web.

I would be tempted to go one step further. Before you even think about design, create all your content — or at least get it close to what you want. Then mark it up. Then design it.

Following this approach, by the time you reach Keith’s Step 3, you can go nuts.

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.

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by Mark Rogers © 2010-2020