newsonaut


The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

August 20, 2016


The drive toward driverless cars

Uber is testing self-driving Volvo XC90s in Pittsburgh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 6, 2016


Olympics tape delay is a relic of the past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NBC ignores this at its peril.

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July 20, 2016


The augmentation of our reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 12, 2016


Pokemon Go is coming to a neighbourhood near you

Pokemon Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 2, 2016


Remember snail mail? It might be going on strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



June 25, 2016


The power of the old press led the way for Brexit

National Post got it wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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June 11, 2016


Apps like flipp could steal flyers away from newspapers

flipp icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 28, 2016


How to be a webmaster in the 21st century

The word “webmaster” seems hopelessly old-fashioned. It brings back memories of under-construction GIFs, visitor counters and “enter” links you had to click on just to get past the home page.

Plus, the idea of one person being master of an entire website is in some cases just plain impossible. Many sites these days are far too big and complicated to be the responsibility of one person alone.

Still, I can’t help but agree with Justin Jackson — it’s great to be a fucking webmaster.

You can write whatever you want whenever you want. You don’t have to worry about Facebook algorithms deciding who gets to see your post. Anyone who comes to your site will see whatever you want them to see.

You can write things that are politically incorrect. You can use salty language. You can write in-depth think pieces. Facebook frowns on all of these, and you can count on them being demoted into obscurity.

The other great thing about being a webmaster is that you can make your site look however you want it to look. Take a bit of time to learn HTML, and you’re no longer dependent on bland WordPress or Tumblr templates. If you want a corny GIF on your home page, you can go ahead and put it there — front and centre.

Becoming a webmaster is actually quite easy.

Apps

Text editor: You need this to type out your HTML code. Your computer comes with one pre-installed. On a PC, it’s called Notepad. On a Mac, it’s called TextEdit.

You can also download free text editors. I currently use Atom, which is designed to be used by the whole family — just watch their video. Back in the 1990s, I started with PageSpinner, which you can use for free if you don’t mind the occasional shareware nag. It’s great for beginners because it helps generate the code for you.

FTP client: You need this to upload your HTML to a server. There’s a free one for Mac and PC called Filezilla. Another one called Cyberduck might be easier for beginners. This was my first. I liked it because of the friendly interface.

HTML

Don’t be afraid of HTML. It’s not programming — it’s just markup you put in your text so that web browsers know what to do with it. Without the markup, you text would display in one giant blob, all the same size. HTML makes sure that it displays with headings and paragraphs.

In fact, you could get away with learning just three HTML tags — the ones for headings, paragraphs and links. Even links are not totally necessary, but links are why the web was invented in the first place.

So how do you learn? Go to W3 Schools, copy and paste their example into one of the afore-mentioned text editors and save it as index.html. Right-click on the resulting file and open it with the web browser of your choice.

What you’ll have is a perfectly good web page that looks good to anyone who sees it. Of course, once you get a taste of the power of publishing, you’ll want to learn more. Just keep going with the W3 Schools lessons.

Web hosting

Your web pages need to be uploaded to a server so everyone on the Internet can see them. This can get complicated because there hundreds of web hosting companies to choose from, and of course you have to pay.

I got my start on a service that came free with my Shaw Internet account. It’s gone through some changes, but apparently still exists. Do a Google search for the name of your Internet service provider plus words like free web space, and you might get lucky.

For me this was the perfect playground in which to hone my web skills. It’s one thing to preview your work in the privacy of your home, but quite another to put it out there for all to see.

If you do wind up having to pay for web hosting, resist the temptation to sign up for one of their pre-built websites. True webmasters build their own fucking websites.



May 14, 2016


If Canadians can subsidize the CBC, why not other media as well?

It’s hard to be a fan of someone best know for shutting down newsrooms and laying off journalists. But Postmedia president and CEO Paul Godfrey just might have a good idea.

He appeared before a Commons committee to make a plea for more federal government spending on newspaper advertising. He also asked for a system of tax breaks for businesses that advertise in newspapers.

I know about this because I read it on CBC’s website. Yes, the CBC that is subsidized by Canadian taxpayers to produce news for TV, radio and the Internet — but not print. The CBC that reported it will receive a “cash infusion” of $675 million over the next five years from the Liberal government.

Apparently, those same Liberals who didn’t think twice about straight-up cash for the CBC had a hard time imagining even roundabout support for newspapers.

Said Liberal MP Adam Vaughan: “There have been no fiercer critics of subsidies to the media than the Toronto Sun and the National Post. How do you square your editorial position with your corporate position?”

Godfrey had to explain that newspaper columnists are allowed to express opinions that don’t jive with those of the owners. I wonder if anyone at the CBC (Rex Murphy? Rick Mercer?) has ever criticized the government.

We’re told that taxpayers should be glad to support the CBC because it promotes national unity. To varying degrees, Canadians have bought into this argument. Local newspapers promote democracy and community, so it shouldn’t be a hard sell for taxpayers to support them as well.

The problem is that newspapers aren’t the only ones in trouble. Local TV stations are also facing hard times. And what about all the little news sites eking out a living — should they get help, too?

It might be tricky, but I say yes. We could figure it out.

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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.

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