With Friends Like Facebook

 

Last week Facebook, once again, tried to get everyone to accept its friend request. At its developer-centric F8 conference, the social network announced App Links and Anonymous Login. 

App Links allows mobile apps to easily exchange information without having to go through a web browser. Anonymous Login allows you to use your Facebook credentials to log into a Facebook-friendly site without giving up your data to that site.

But, should those new features convince us that the network is our new BFF? Well, as with many relationships on Facebook, it's complicated.

App Links is a tricky bit of business. We are all familiar with hyperlinks on the web. You click on one and are wisked to another page. But, what if you want to click on a button in one app on your smartphone or tablet and need it to trigger a specific page or action in another app. Say, for example you're in Flickr and want to use Snapseed to edit a picture. And, what if you want to do that no matter if you're using an Android, iOS or Windows smartphone? Right now, there's no easy way. Facebook wants App Links to change that. It's offering the solution as a free, open source platform that essentially is the glue that will hold together mobile apps, regardless of platforms. 

In short, Facebook wants to out-Google, Google, in the app space. Google's been brilliant at monetizing our interest in browser-based web content. But, more and more often, we're getting our info, entertainment and social connections via stand-alone applications on mobile devices, not via browsers. 

And, right now, that means we're off the radar for Google. With App Links, Facebook will be able to follow us from app to app, gathering data as we hop, skip and jump. It will be able to offer app developers an ad network with a reach that spans far beyond a single application. And, like Google, it will be harvesting a metric buttload of behavioural metrics as it does so. 

But, as other observers have pointed out, releasing details about App Links just a few weeks before both Google and Apple host their own developers conferences (Google I/O and WWDC) is either an incredible act of stupidity or hubris. I'll go with hubris for $200.

It is impossible to imagine that either Google, which has been shortening its leash on Android, or Apple, which is refining iOS 8 right now, will allow Facebook's shot across the bow to go unanswered. Both will offer their own deep linking between apps and both could easily disable Facebook's. If I thought App Links had a hope in hell of succeeding, I'd be very worried about a company like Facebook having that kind of control. As it is, I'll just be running a death pool.

The Anonymous Login is a bit of a magician's misdirection. It appears that Facebook is doing you a favour by not passing your data along to sites that let you login in via the social network. And, it's true, it's a big improvement. But, let's not forget that the social network started sharing that data in ways that pissed off a lot of people to begin with. So, it's a little like someone tossing a bucket of pigshit on you then expecting thanks for the free shower.

Plus, while Facebook will keep that data from its partners it will continue to collect it itself, just like with App Links. 

So, my advice is the same everyone gives about Facebook. Don't be too quick to friend somebody you don't know.



 

A Spineless FCC Won't Protect the Internet Backbone

What if the World Wide Web, right now, is the best it will ever be?

What if, in five years we look back on 2014 longingly as a time when Netflix flowed like water, when we didn’t have to pay extra to see shows that Bell and Rogers didn’t produce and when startup video shops and alternative news sites didn’t have to cough up exorbitant fees to have their content put in the “fast lane” of the digital pipes the carriers owned.

What if, in fact, the internet of 2019 is more like commercial broadcast TV is today, where prime time goes to the high-paying shows or content the carriers own the rights to, late night is full of infomercials and community voices are only heard on low-budget cable shows.

That’s exactly what cable and telephone companies in Canada and the U.S. have lusted after for years - an internet they control. And, last week a toothless and gutless Federal Communications Commission seems to have written the first act of their wet dream.

But, let’s back up a bit. It’s important to understand some basic ideas here, the most important being net neutrality.

Let’s imagine the Internet as a series of beer taps in a pub. You, as a patron, request your favourite brew (let’s call it Old Rainbarrel) and the barman pulls you a pint.

But what if the barman was also the brewmaster of one of the beers he carries, one called “Bud’s Suds”.  Now it would be in his interest to say, “Sorry, the Old Rainbarrel is barely trickling from the tap tonight. I’d suggest you try Bud’s Suds, plenty available and quick!”. And, what if things got worse? What if the publican not only wanted you to pay for your beer but went to the makers of Old Rainbarrel and said, “You know, I could get your beer flowing a lot faster if you just pony up a thousand a month.” If Old Rainbarrel, a microbrewery with little capital, couldn’t pay, the bar owner would keep a kink in the hose to the Rainbarrel keg.

The publican is not practising beer neutrality. Instead of being an indifferent conduit of your beer, he’s controlling the flow of the brew, and favouring product that he makes, or the product of a company he cuts special deals with. Nobody but the bartender and his corporate buddies think that’s a good idea, but that’s what the FCC is about to let U.S. broadband carriers do to the Web.

The FCC is circulating draft plans to allow AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to charge companies a premium for access to the high speed pipes on their networks so long as that premium is “commercially reasonable”. The term is as vague as it sounds. The FCC used that language because, in January a federal appeals court ruled that the commission lacks the authority to require internet service providers to treat all traffic equally because, in the U.S., broadband provision is considered an “information service” not a telecommunications service, and so the FCC can’t require net neutrality. So, instead of doing what most critics argue they should, and declare broadband a telecommunications service, the FCC is trying to weasel word their way into pretending to protect neutrality. 

The FCC’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, argued in a blog post last Thursday that the draft proposal does not threaten net neutrality, does not put smaller content providers at risk and, at the same time, does protect the open Internet and the consumer.

But, Wheeler has a large credibility gap to overcome with his critics. For a decade he headed up the CTIA, the main D.C. lobbying group for the wireless industry. And, Wheeler isn’t the only FCC executive with carrier roots. According to vice.com, a key FCC advisor, Daniel Alvarez was previously a lawyer for Comcast. In 2010 he wrote to the FCC protesting net neutrality rules. And, another senior FCC counsel, Phillip Verveer, also worked for Comcast and represented CTIA and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association prior to his FCC appointment.

On top of that, Comcast has at least 100 lobbyists in Washington. So, it comes as no surprise net neutrality supporters feel the deck is stacked.

But what does all this have to do with Canada? Canadian carriers have already demonstrated that they give preferential treatment to their own content. throttle bandwidth, degrade competing VOIP services and ignore net neutrality. If the FCC plan goes ahead, there is no doubt Canadian carriers will look for a similar loosening of net neutrality rules from the CRTC in order to compete. And the CRTC has demonstrated little backbone when faced with the entries of Bell, Rogers et al. Plus, a lot of Canadian web traffic goes through U.S. servers would be subject to any FCC decision. However, as Ottawa-based lawyer Michael Geist points in a recent blog post, it will be harder for Canadian telecos to escape the more stringent Canadian requirements for net neutrality, if the CRTC enforces them. 

Net neutrality advocates in the U.S. are fighting FCC to reclassify broadband provision as a telecommunication service. In Canada openmedia.ca is advocating for an open internet as well.

If a net neutrality matters to you, pay attention,  take action and, while you’re at it, support your local microbrewery and make sure it can keep flowing, because Bud's Suds tastes like bathwater.

The Market Devalue of Journalism

Last week the Toronto Star announced a couple of things. First, they laid off 11 full time page editors. Second, they announced the creation of a new department, torstar.com and its intention to hire 17 new digital staff including video editors, digital producers and social media assistants. This is the first time folks in the torstar.ca wing of the company have actually been journalists. Historically torstar.ca been staffed by production folks and was, for a few years, jobbed out to another company completely.

The odd thing is, the new hires will be paid a good deal less than their compatriots in the print newsroom. According to a memo sent by the paper’s editor-in-chief Michael Cooke and its managing editor, Jane Davenport, the Star will pay the new hires the same kind of money they could make at Bell Media, Huffpo or Facebook. They called the lower salaries (over $200 per week lower, in some cases) “market-based rates”. The memo states: “... new digital jobs cannot be rated on print business legacy rates of pay.”

This is an odd position, especially in a unionized shop that is in the print business. A digital journalist is still a journalist and must be doing the same work as a print journalist. So why is one employee paid less just because his or her work doesn’t end up as ink on cellulose?

And, the new positions are in a different department from the main newsroom, which means that although they are unionized jobs, the new hires won’t be bumped, if there are layoffs. And, of course, that means that print journalists don’t roll into the torstar.com positions. They could, of course apply for the 17 new slots, but they’d have to take a cut in pay.

According to Unifor unit chair for the Star, Liz Marzari, the union is worried that the digital journalists are getting substantially lower pay for the same work. And, since, in the near future almost all journalism work will be digital, that means the new hires will set a new low bar for journalists working at the Star. “We object to the company trying to take an end-run around hard won seniority,” says Marzari. “we understand that if there were lay offs the new digital journalist hires would be vulnerable, but let’s have a conversation about it, not just isolate them.”

She says Unifor can take legal action and wants to continue discussing the situation with Star management.

Of course, in an ideal world Star staff would have already acquired the digital skills they need to be capable online journalists. And, in that same ideal world, they would be paid the same no matter what kind of journalism they practised. But, clearly, that’s not the case. The Star has historically treated online work as production work, not journalism.

Back in the late 90s I visited the Toronto Star to see how they tackled online news. My hosts directed me to a sprawling space full of eager young faces, all illuminated by monitors that still gave off the nerd-attracting pheromones of fresh packaging. But this was not the newsroom of the Toronto Star. This was a whole other team, the web team. They were not journalists, not part of the Guild and they were not paid on the same wage scale as the ink-stained folks nearby. In fact, they weren't even allowed to alter copy from the newsroom. What went in the paper went on the site, no rewritten headlines, no new subheads, no grabber quotes. Certainly no video or new photos. Nothing. The people in the room were just web jockeys, there only to shovel the print edition online. The Toronto Star wanted to keep these young people as far away from journalism and as far away from the Guild as they could.

But now, even though the new Torstar.ca team will be doing journalism, the old ideas of the print view of the worth of digital journalism seem to prevail. It is devalued. And the Star seems to want it both ways. They want the cache of being an elder statesman of print journalism in Toronto, but, when it suits them, they expect to behave like a nimble, digital native, despite having far more overhead, legacy equipment and legacy union agreements.

That’s not fair. It’s not fair to longtime Star journalists who will be bought out, retire or move on without truly participating in digital journalism. It’s not fair to the new hires who will be blamed for setting a new low in journalism wages and who will lack the deep experience of the Star culture and maybe of serious journalism and still be expected to publish quality work. And, it’s not fair to the publications readers, who should expect both the best journalism and the most modern delivery of that news and not have to settle for one or other because the Star wants to cavort around as mutton dressed like lamb.



 

The Lesson of Heartbleed

Heartbleed started out as such a simple thing. It was a single error in a line of code meant to keep data transmitted on the Internet secure. The code was part of a 2011 update to OpenSSL and was written by German software developer Robin Seggelmann. As its name suggests, OpenSSL is code freely available to anyone who wants to encrypt communications. And, it was used by companies large and small; by cellphones; by tablets; by the "internet of things" and, by now about two thirds of all servers on the World Wide Web. And, in every copy, the little error was sitting there, fragile and vulnerable.

The error was a kind of heart arrhythmia. When two servers want to share data they open up a line of communication. To keep that line active, one server sends another a bit of data, and asks for it to be echoed back. In other words, it shares what's called a heartbeat - a way of making sure the other server is alive and listening. The heartbeat was sure and steady and pumped in unison millions of times a day. But, thanks to the little error, it could also be made to generate a murmur, a rhythm that could send not just a reassuring echo, but a string of data nearby the echo on a server, a string that could include passwords, encryption keys - a fatal haemorrhage of secure data.

The error, now called Heartbleed, was discovered independently by researchers at Google and Codenomicon. It was a catastrophic security breach that security analyst Bruce Schneier said "went to eleven". IT staff worldwide scrambled to suture the bleed on their servers, users changed their passwords and used hastily-cobbled tools to see if their favourite sites were vulnerable. Mainstream media brought a whole new meaning to "if it bleeds, it leads".

But, the story turned darker, then darker still. Two unnamed sourced told Bloomberg that the NSA had discovered the Heartbleed vulnerability two years ago and had been exploiting it to gather intelligence.

If so, they would have turned the error into what's known as a "Zero Day" exploit, a vulnerability that IT teams would have zero days to patch, since they would be unaware of it.

The U.S. government used just such an exploit, called the Stuxnet Worm, in 2010 to cause Iranian uranium-enriching centrifuges to spin too fast and explode.

Last week the NSA, uncharacteristically, denied it had known about or used Heartbleed. And, besides, observers said, there was no evidence that encryption keys could be extracted using the now-famous vulnerability. That reassuring notion lasted two days until node.js team members managed to do just that.

Then, on Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama said that the government leaned towards announcing vulnerabilities like Heartbleed, rather than using them for intelligence gathering. But, he gave the NSA the freedom to do just the opposite in cases of national security. That's license we have already seen the NSA use with all the self-control of a three-year-old alone with a cookie jar.

So, in one just one week a hapless programmer's little error has escalated to a cardiac arrest across the Web, has cost billions to fix and has potentially been used by a secretive and near-rogue government agency to circumvent security and shred privacy.

Of course, if the NSA were aware of the error two years ago and had announced its discovery, all of this could have been prevented.

Maybe it didn't know. Maybe its possibly $10 billion in funding, lack of oversight, its lying to Congress, its track record for interpreting its mandate broadly and its purchasing and development of zero day exploits mean nothing. Or, maybe last week's little error was just a  defibrillation to remind us we're just a heartbeat away from the death of security.

The Future - Messy

The future will be more complicated than we’ve been led to believe. In many movies and television shows, for example, technological nirvana arrives full blown and with startling monotony. Yes, there are class divisions. The poor and disenfranchised get the flotsam and jetsam of the glistening cybercites. But for the upper classes immaculate clothing is woven of indestructible nano-fabrics and the flawless interfaces all run the same spartan OS on computers of similar industrial design. The screens, large and small, rarely contain more than a single window and by whatever means the future devices talk to one another, they handle the digital handshaking invisibly. When the computers speak to humans, they all do with the same calming voice. There are no dropped calls in the 22nd century. The lie of that fantasy really came home this week when Microsoft announced its latest operating system Windows 8.1. It now stands as a viable alternative, even on mobile platforms, to Android and iOS. And, each operating has its own personal assistant: Siri for iOS, Google Now for Android and Cortana for Windows 8.1. And, each personal assistant has its own voice, and its own personality - Siri the chatty helper, Google Now the precognitive valet and Cortana the confidential secretary. And each OS has its own design aesthetic - from the bright, lean and animated iOS to the darker, more flexible, Android.

The idea that in the near future there will be one dominant operating system is hard to imagine. In fact, it is only the competitive pressure from Windows and Android that keeps Apple moving forward. In turn, only the market share that Android and Apple are stealing that made Microsoft reimagine its mobile platform in a desperate play for third place. Even further back, it is only Apple’s iPhone that shook cellphone manufacturers out of their design stupor to start making actually usable multitouch screens instead their UI trainwrecks with physical keyboards.

And, anyway, there probably isn’t one operating system that’s ideal for everyone. That’s largely because of another reason the future will be complicated - it will arrive for people at different times. Or, as Canadian sci-fi author William Gibson says: “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”.

So, for code-savvy, open-source fanboys who want to jerry-rig solutions, get under the hood and trick out their smartphone skins and functionality, Android is just the ticket. For business folks, a Windows OS that plays nicely with Office and gives them a limited but accessible eco-system works just fine. And for folks less interested in the leading edge than in consistent functionality and interface, iOS is as close to the next century as they want to get.

For the thousands of people who for economic, geographic or philosophical reasons, are without smartphones the “internet in your pocket” is still an unimaginable and, perhaps, unattainable or unwanted, future.

Those of us with the latest gadgets are encumbered with short-lived batteries, are dependent on fossil fuels and deal with houses that need painting and clothes that need mending. In those things, due to realities of chemistry, the future has not come as fast as it has in the world of telecommunications.

All this means that the years ahead will be much less like 2001 or Star Trek and more like the world of Bladerunner. In that film a future Los Angeles has the future accreted on top of the past. At street level, the city is rain-soaked, soot-smeared and is still adorned by the old architecture of our modern day. The sidewalk denizens cook street meat, sell sex and live in walk-ups. Yes, a few manufacture artificial snakes and human eyes, but they are the rare birds. But, look higher, towards the realm of the Tyrell Corporation, and the future weighs down the past with layer upon layer of oppressive technology. At its zenith, that technology has created artificial humans, closer to Bates in Downton Abbey than the Siri in our iPhones.

And, I have no doubt Tyrell made the strides it did in “skin job” perfection because of competition from other replicant manufacturers. In many ways, it is a capitalist, free market future, while the clean and tidy futures of more sanitized sci-fi suggest an earlier socialism in which interfaces and devices evolved to a single point for the good of all.

I don’t believe in that future and, I hope, for the sake of refinement, the years ahead remain as messy and multilayered as a Los Angeles streetscape.

 

Virtual Reality - Rebooted

Back in the early 90s I was entranced by the idea of virtual reality and cyberpunk. I fell in love with the VR cyberspace of William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer. I read about Jaron Lanier’s work on VR goggles and haptic gloves in the now defunct Mondo 2000 magazine and suffered through the dreadful sci-fi flick, Lawnmower Man. Years later, I plunged into the virtual world of Second Life.

And now, virtual reality is the bomb all over again. Last week Facebook bought Oculus Rift, a small, Kickstarter-funded startup that picked up the VR torch a couple of years ago when mainstream game companies had left it behind as a failed idea.

By all accounts, the Oculus Rift experience is profound. The still-awkward looking goggles serve up stereoscopic images that move in tandem with your head. They put you, users say, inside games, inside the metaverse.

But, Facebook isn’t the only one that’s jumped into VR. Sony has announced a prototype VR headset for Playstation 4. It’s called Project Morpheus, and even in its early stages, looks much more comfortable and stylish then the Oculus Rift gear. And, True Player Gear has announced the Totem headset that allows you to see the real and virtual worlds at the same time. And Microsoft? Nothing yet, but Jaron Lanier is working in its research department, so they shouldn't be counted out.

So why is virtual reality so hot right now?

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he sees VR as the next big thing. “Strategically we want to start building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile,” he told a recent conference call. “History suggests there will be more platforms to come, and whoever builds and defines these,” he said, will shape the future and reap the benefits.”

Zuckerberg’s smart to be looking to platforms beyond mobile. His company missed mobile when it started to heat up. Though, with apps like Paper, it’s playing catch-up pretty well. It can’t afford to miss the next bus by. But is VR it?

Certainly the software, hardware and pure graphics processing power of devices and computers is at a stage where the experience can be rich and immersive. And, thanks to the R&D and economies of scale smartphones have afforded hardware manufacturers, the size and cost of VR parts are in the ballpark for making VR gear affordable.

Some observers think VR will be stuck in a gamer ghetto, where the first-person shooters and RPGs leave hardcore players hungry for more immersive and visceral experiences. But, clearly Facebook sees an audience far beyond games.

Right now Facebook is a global social platform tied to your real identity. If Zuckerberg isn’t just blowing smoke up investor’s butts, he imagines a future Facebook where friends and family can concurrently experience vacations, sports events, family milestones etc. in a virtual world either manufactured by VR headsets graphic processors or via paired stereo video cameras that beam experiences to an audience.

I think it’s pointless to offer critiques of those ideas along the lines of “nobody’s going to wear goofy VR gear to connect with family members” or “only gamers care about virtual reality”. Those arguments are of the same nature as “who needs a computer you can carry around with you” and “nobody will read a newspaper on a screen.” The reality of technology is that you should should never bet against it, because you’ll lose in six months.

Already teens who use Snapchat, Facebook and text messages live in two worlds, the “here and now” and “there and now”. So, don’t count the metaverse out. The groundwork has already been laid. And, me? Ready to jack in.

Everybody Mesh Now

Libertarian and Electronic Frontier Foundation creator John Gilmore, is the author of one of my favourite statements about the Web: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

That quote points out two aspects of the web that are important. First, that it is decentralized and second that it has the technical capacity to subvert intrusions it considers counterproductive. But Gilmore said that back in 1993, long before a web increasingly constrained by anti-net neutrality plays, cyberspying and corporate ownership of pipes and content. So, it’s refreshing to see another web rise up as an even more decentralized alternative - the mesh network.

The web itself, as Gilmore indicates, is a type of mesh network. Each node in the web passes on data packets. It then uses information in that packet to nudge it along to its final destination. There it is reassembled with the other data packets that make up an email, audio or video file or picture. Should one packet hit a roadblock, it can be rerouted around the damaged node and get delivered anyway. A robust mesh has more than one way to get from point a to point b.

Web traffic, of course, depends on the vast Internet for messages to get through. A computer in the bush of Northern Ontario, with no Internet, gets no email.

But, smartphones use more than just the web to communicate. They can use their short range Bluetooth radios and even create their own ad hoc wifi networks with or without a connection to the web or cellular data service.

That means that, over short distances, two smartphones (and other mobile devices) could exchange messages and data even when there is no Internet-based wifi.

That’s exactly what happens when you use the AirDrop feature to transfer images from one iPhone to another one nearby. Or, when your Bluetooth heartrate monitor sends data to the running app on your Android phone.

But, imagine Smartphone A and B. They can talk to one another if they are close enough. What if Smartphone B also talks to Smartphone C. Smartphone C isn’t close enough to talk to Smartphone A directly. But, what if Smartphone B could pass a message from Smartphone C to Smartphone A? Now we have the beginnings of a mesh. Let’s add Smartphones D,E,F,G and so on. Each can communicate directly with the other phones near them and can passively push along messages for other phones in the growing web. With enough phones, close enough to even one neighbour, you could interconnect and share messages with a neighbourhood or even city of smartphones, without the Internet at all. That’s a mesh network.

That’s exactly how the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) tablets used in developing countries communicate. A mesh network is perfect in villages that have little, if any internet connectivity (meshed tablets can also share a single internet point over a wide area as well).

The OLPC project is making use of technology from Open Garden. The San Francisco-based company creates software that makes it easy for laptops, cellphones and tablets to share Internet connectivity, no matter which device has the connection. It can even pool data access from multiple sources - say from your home wifi and cellular data.

And, just last week, Open Garden released FireChat, an iOS app that makes use of the  Multipeer Connectivity Framework that Apple introduced in iOS 7. With FireChat, you can send messages and pictures to other FireChat users nearby and to others connected via daisy-chaining in the mesh network. That means, for example, that at a rally or demonstration, an activist group could create an ad hoc mesh network just to chat with each other, without an internet connection. Or, you could chat with others at a music festival even if there was no wifi or cellular signal. Right now there is no way to create a private group on FireChat, but I’m sure that’s coming.

Google is also keenly interested in mesh networks as a tool for connecting the “internet of things” like a smartphone and your Nest smart thermostat, for example. And, they see it as the communications fabric for wearable devices.

So, you might imagine four mesh layers: the WWW as the largest, a nearby mesh of communicating smartphones, then a mesh of household devices, then a personal mesh for devices you wear.

I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more about mesh networks, which is good, because when privacy, censorship and control are in the wind, we all need new ways to route around them.







 

Here Comes Wristwatch War One

This week the battle of the smartwatches began in earnest. Google announced Google Wear, a flavour of the Android operating system tailored to wrist-worn devices. On the same day, Motorola took the wraps off of the Moto 360, a stylish round smartwatch that tastefully mixes tech and fashion. 

And, screenshots of Apple’s Healthbook have leaked. Healthbook is an app that is rumoured to be part of software suite in the next iPhone. The app can track steps, heart rate, blood pressure and other health metrics. It’s assumed that some of that health data will be collected via sensors in an iWatch - a product Apple has yet to announce. But, that launch seems very likely given the design, retail and medical experts Apple has been hiring.

Google-based watches, like the Moto 360, and others coming from LG and Fossil, will be built around predictive notifications and a voice interface. What that means is that they will really be Google Now watches. Google Now is the remarkable just-in-time notifications technology built into Android. If you use Google to search for a flight and a hotel, Google Now will let you know flight info when you arrive at the airport and show you directions and travel time to the hotel when you touch down in a new city.

For a screen worn on your wrist, these kinds of when-you-need-it notifications make a ton of sense. A watch is an interface you take in at a glance. You don’t want to spend time searching for info, you want it to be delivered to you. In other words, as technology writer Andy Ihnatko says, you want your watch and its notifications to act like a valet - a Jeeves for your activities of daily living.

The Google smartwatches are also meant to be spoken to. The watches, working wirelessly with your Android phone, will convert your speech to text for responses to text messages or for voice queries like “show me the nearest sushi restaurants”. And, the watches are not only context aware, but also can sense what activity you're doing. Running in an airport, dancing in a club etc.

So, Google watches seem to be about augmenting and assisting with the lives of busy people.

If Apple launches an iWatch, it appears it will be more focussed on health than help. Certainly Siri, the Apple equivalent to Google Now, isn’t a good valet. Siri knows a lot, but doesn’t inuit well. So, it may not be the best interlocutor for a watch interface. And, we know that Tim Cook and other Apple execs are quite keen on the Nike Fuelband, and have done great partnerships with Nike in the past (Nike+, for example). And Apple has hired Marcelo Malini Lamego, the former CTO of a medical device company  and Michael O'Reilly, the former chief medical officer and executive VP for medical affairs at Masimo, a company known for non-invasive medical monitoring hardware.

Healthbook certainly appears to be strong evidence of a health focus for Apple, but it’s not clear what role, if any, Apple’s wristwatch will play in data acquisition. Certainly, some data, like glucose levels, can’t be measured without some degree of invasion.

But, Apple has a history of zigging when others zag – in terms of functionality, industrial design and interface. It may be that Cupertino doesn’t buy the whole idea of the Google-style wrist-valet. It may be, a Craig Hockenberry suggests, Apple's not interested in a watch at all.

Whatever it turns out to be, the iWatch is certainly not in the same position the iPhone was in. The iPhone was Apple’s entry into an entrenched market burdened with ugly, hard-to-use handsets that was ripe for disruption.

The smartwatch market is brand new. Early entries like the Pebble, the Samsung Gear or Sony’s Smartwatch 2 or the Cookoo were clunky nerd bling. But the coming watches from Motorola, LG and Fossil appear to be extremely attractive and beautifully machined hardware that would look fine on a hipster’s wrist. 

And, as importantly, the Google Wear interface appears graphically appealing, sparse and intuitive. I have no doubt that Apple’s own watch will be elegant and fashionable as well, but the gap between Apple’s industrial design and the products from HTC, Nokia and Motorola has narrowed dramatically. It won’t be a cakewalk this time.

The Google-based smartwatches won’t be out until later this year. The iWatch, if its real, will be announced in the fall, at the earliest, I think. 

And with all things technological, execution is everything. If the battery life on the devices suck or you have to turn the watch on with a physical button the device will be stillborn.

But, whatever shape the watches take, and whatever their functionality, this month will be remembers as the day Wristwatch War One was declared.

 

 

 

Power Over, It's Complicated

In their best-selling book, Freakanomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explain that the deadly business of crack dealing in American inner cities has such attraction because it is a tournament. In a tournament hundreds of desperate youth will put up with danger, low wages and dreadful work because they believe they will start from nothing and rise to great power and wealth. Young black men see the cars, cash rolls and bling of the bosses and risk everything to be them. Likewise Canadian Idol contestants line up in the rain and face failure and humiliation because they believe they will be the next Taylor Swift. As long as you believe in the tournament, the tournament has incredible power over you.

The flipside is, of course, that once you realize the game is rigged, that the drug bosses lease their cars, wear gold-plated jewelry and dupe their underlings, you quit the tournament, and it no longer has the power to control you.

And, ideas themselves can also possess the same kind of “power over” as a crack tournament. And that brings me to a another book, one I’ve been reading this week - Dana Boyd’s exhaustively researched It’s Complicated. Boyd, a social media scholar, deconstructs and debunks myths about how youth uses the Internet and social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

I’ve been a fan of Boyd’s work for years. She’s surgically dissected the wooly thinking behind the Web as a dank cellar crawling with predators or that today’s teens are using smartphones to disconnect from human interaction or that kids are naturally digital natives. In her book Boyd points out that many of the notions fearful parents have invested in are phantoms born of an overprotective and technically naive generations own issues and preconceptions.

And that brings me back to the “power over” of tournaments and ideas. That power is binary. It is either all on or all off.

Once a teenage girl realizes that the odds are never in her favour she, like Katniss in The Hunger Games, stops playing and, at best, starts playing along without the fervour of a true believer. She might even start a revolution.

Once a young man realizes his label is playing him for a fool, he walks away and nothing a manager can say will hold sway. The switch has been thrown.

I think a lot of people, particularly older folks and parents, are in the thrall of ill-informed ideas about social media, the Web and mobile devices. As Boyd points out, they believe that by joining Facebook and following their children they will protect them, when in fact they’re just driving them to new platforms where they can be with their friends. They believe online spaces are more dangerous than real world ones, when, in fact, orders of magnitude more sexual abuse and predatory behaviour takes place in the real world, by the friends and relatives their children already know. They believe their children are disconnecting on their phones, when they’ve actually limited their children’s opportunities to socialize in real life.

I’m hoping that a book like Boyd’s, which is aimed squarely at them, will throw the switch. And, that, when the power is cut to those notions, the folks that I call “jubilant Luddites” will bring a deeper, more nuanced and more open attitude to their deliberations about how technology should be used, rejected or embraced.

Who knows. They might even start a revolution.






 

The Serial Thefts of the Mainstream

In the rock opera, RENT, the drag queen Angel is a visionary fashionista and a poverty-stricken, HIV-positive bohemian living in East Village New York. At her funeral her friend Maureen remembers Angel could make a dress from a tablecloth, and the next season The Gap would be selling the apparel in its stores.

Angel's plight came to mind last week when the comedy site Funny or Die produced a fake ad for a bogus antigravity hover board. The video, which features a parade of celebs, went viral because enough followers fell asleep in physics class and thought the product was real. Just think about that: antigravity has been invented and the first time we hear about it is in an ad for a floating skateboard. People, seriously?

The hover board video is certainly not the first time a brand has commoditized what was once the organic process of something astonishing, frightening or unique becoming popular online. Nor is it the first time that a medium or meme has been hijacked by commercial interests. There is a sad history of it.

Let's look at radio at the beginning of the 20th century. Back then radio (often via Morse code) was strictly the domain of the hobbyist. These were earnest men (almost exclusively) who built and improved their own gear and filled the airwaves with messages, music and emergency bulletins. It's no exaggeration to say they collectively and altruistically invented radio.

But less than two decades later the US. Government, citing concerns over security during WWI, took away key frequencies from the "hams". Then in 1921, the then-fledgling RCA broadcast the Dempsey/Carpentier fight to 300,000 listeners and the era of commercial radio (which the U.S. Department of Congress prohibited amateurs from engaging in) was born. Four years later RCA became NBC. National mainstream broadcasting rose from what, less than 30 years earlier, was only the daydream of the now-marginalized hobbyists.

Almost a century later the pattern repeated itself with podcasting. In 2000 the idea of enclosing a subscribable audio file in an RSS feed (Really Simple Syndication) was a technical innovation created by programmer Dave Winer. It would take a couple years before pioneering podcasters like Dave Slusher, Dawn and Drew Domkus and Adam Curry not only started creating podcasts but, in Curry's case, figured out how to get podcasts automatically into iTunes. By 2004 USA Today and other mainstream media were mentioning this odd thing, podcasting. That same year the Rabble Podcast Network was born. But, it wasn't until mid-2005, when Apple added a Podcast section to the popular iTunes Music Store, that the popularity of the then almost exclusively amateur-produced podcasts took off.

But only two years later, those podcasts were bumped from the high profile first tier of podcast postings in the iTunes Music Store by podcasts produced by the BBC, NPR and the CBC. Many of the podcasts the stations released were merely repackaged of their radio shows. They lacked the show notes, user contributions and communities that grew up around the early podcasts. Once again, a medium invented and grown by amateurs became the domain, at least in the public eye, of the mainstream.

Radio was once the electronic conversations of enthusiasts, podcasts were once a way of the everyman to reach everybody and viral videos used to be the product of the authentic discovery and the selflesh sharing by a delighted online community. They are all worse, I think, for being supplanted by an ersatz commercial substitute. In RENT Angel dies without being recognized for her avant garde genius. I hope advertising agencies and brands who steal and spoil a wonderful aspect of the Web appreciate what it is they are killing before, like a phoney hover board, it ever got off the ground.

 

Technology's Will-o-the-Wisp

Why is making something delightful so difficult? This struck me the other day when I came across an article about a Google Hangout that would allow selected Manchester United soccer fans to cheer on their favourite team from the front row, where the front row was really a series of computer monitors that formed the boards of the Old Trafford stadium. The fans could watch the game from home, but their faces would appear on the screens far bigger than life size for an international audience to see. 

I found the idea delightful. It brought a smile to my face as I imagined the die-hard fans learning they'd won. And I loved the idea that a soccer franchise and Google had not only thought up the notion but had allowed it to become a reality. 

I also realized that I'd missed that feeling of delight, at least as far as Web experiences, hardware and software goes. 

It's so rare to come across some device or wired experience that is enchanting, that you just, even for a little while, fall in love with. 

I really enjoy my Pebble smartwatch. But there is a single feature that is truly delightful. Late at night, in bed, if I wake up and want to see the time, I can just rotate my wrist quickly and the backlight on the Peeble comes to life with a dull blue glow. It's a simple, elegant feature that is endearing. 

 On my Android-based Nexus 7 tablet, the virtual valet Google Now can predict and offer up information to me before I know I need it by examining where I am, what I've searched for or what I've gotten email about. The first time I was near a cinema and it alerted me to the movies playing there it entranced me like a great magic trick. 

I take my iPad mini with me everywhere around the house, on commutes, to coffee shops. It's a delightful device that let's me carry out almost any task easily. It's the perfect size, weight and shape. And, it has that extra fairy dust that lets it transcend the merely useful and usable into the realm of deightful.

What is that rare essence? The Manchester United Google Hangout offers a clue. It's a gutsy, inventive idea that seems so right and so unexpected both at the same time. It's like the ideal ending to a great movie. The conclusion comes out of left field, but is perfectly satisfying - Fight Club, The Prestige and The Sting come to mind here. So, in part, delight might come from the obvious in hindsight. 

But the Hangout offers an other attribute of delight as well. It's an idea that you just love for its sheer audacity. It's never been done and is about to be done without a safety harness. It part of the reason we adore Cirque do Soliel or live theatre. The chance of failing, then the triumph of success engenders delight. 

And, the delightful anticipates. Think of Forest Whitaker in The Butler. He was taught to give his guests what they most needed before they asked. Google Now anticpates and often gets its suggestions right on the money in a charming way. 

The iPad has pre-cognition built into its bones and DNA. Its virtual keyboard imagines the words you mean. It's just right size for you hands, just the right weight for your arms. It turn itself off when you close its cover, and snaps to attention when you peel it back. It was designed as an accessible information appliance. That meant that Apple, unlike Samsung, had to park all sorts of features and functions that complicated the user experience.

And its user interface has one final aspect of the delightful - whimsy. The entire graphic display is built on a physics engine that lets icons zoom, panes slide and generally turns the screen into a garden of subtle delights. It is the unexpectedly fanciful nature of the interface that wins fans, even if they don't notice it.

So: surprise, simplicity, anticipation, audacity and whimsy. How hard is that? Extremely, apparently, since so few companies can deliver delight. They don't risk enough, care enough, imagine enough or make enough hard choices. They try to please everyone and delight no one. But I think delight should be a goal, not a will-o-the-wisp. It's what separates technology from magic - and the ordinary from the indispensable.

 

The Paralysis of Parallel Futures

 

There is an old running saying, attributed to writer John Bingham, that goes: "The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start." Unfortunately, for a lot of organizations wanting to take their messages from print to rich, interactive media and mobile devices, the courage to start is replaced by crippling paralysis.

I've seen it over and over in organizations I've tried to help make the leap from cellouse to silicon. It's not a failure to launch, that would be too dynamic an expression. It is stupefying anxiety and confusion that makes even a single, stilted step forward impossible. 

This affliction haunts even organizations that claim to clearly understand the mobile future before them and which realize that the days of print and PDFs as the only means of communication are numbered - on the fingers of one hand.

They are not, to fall back to fitness language again, pre-contemplative. They know they have to change, have invested dollars to make that change, and yet, they can't even shuffle off square one.

Why? What makes some organizations nimble, agile and open to cultural, technological and paradigm shift and others systemically incapable of the first step towards an admitted future?

In my experience it is often because the leadership of the paralyzed companies are capable of imagining two alternative futures simultaneously.

Let me explain what I mean, since most of us do this in a broader sense. It is hard not to contemplate big global issues like climate change, fossil fuel depletion, population growth, overdue pandemics or battles over water rights and not feel that the future will be a bleak, hardscrabble existence a good percentage of the world's population won't survive. But, especially for those of us with children, that future is impossible to truly grasp and honestly believe. So, concurrent with that we imagine a parallel future in which technology, medicine, ecological planning, diplomacy and human ingenuity save the day. We can't completely shake the nightmare scenario, but at the same time we don't let it push us into a pit of despondency because that way madness and stagnation lies. Plus, the cognitive dissonance would shake our heads apart like a junker on ten miles of bad highway. So, we hold two parallel futures but chose one as the greater of equals.

So too do the leaders of paralyzed companies. They travel on the same commuter trains and eat in the same restaurants as we do. They see dozens of people reading and watching videos on tablets and smartphones. They see texting all around them, photos and videos being shot and shared constantly. And, they know what that means, that they are living in a mobile world. But, then.

But then they go to a party and say: "but I just like the feel of a book and the pleasure of reading a print newspaper on a Sunday morning". If they say that enough, at enough cocktail parties where listeners nod in agreement and laugh ruefully at people "staring down at their screens all the time", they will lull themselves in a stupor of mixed drinks and nostalgia, like the denizens of a Weimar Republic era cabaret. They will construct two parallel futures and  hold to the one that gives them the most comfort.

And they will be paralyzed frozen in place: not by an inability to act, but an inability to chose between a future that is an extension of the present, and a rattling, shredding future that burns the present like a bonfire of books. They want Shrodinger's choice: to both act and not act.

But, unfortunately, even at that, when the box is open, the cat often winds up dead, petrified by inaction forever.

 

Of Movies, Magazines and Inciting Events

 

I've been thinking a lot about magazines and movies lately. I recently gave a talk  about rich media to the Alberta Magazine Publishers Association. I spoke a bit about disruptive innovations and their impact on incumbent industries. But, it was only after the talk, when I was preparing for another one, that I had an insight into to what movies could teach magazines and other traditional media.

The plot of many mainstream movies begins with a few minutes in which the main characters and settings are introduced. But the plot is really jumpstarted by what's called the "inciting event". This is the incident that can take our "everyman" on a crash course to hero in seconds flat. Think of Jim Carey finding the mask in "The Mask", Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, Elizabeth Bennet meeting Mr. Darcy or the Titanic sinking in Downton Abbey. 

In each case the change of circumstances is profound, impossible to ignore and causes the main character's nature to be defined by his or her response to the momentous alteration of affairs. It is rare that a main character is unaware of the inciting event, and when he is - as in the case of Great Expectations - it is the exception that proves the rule. 

And, here's the thing: disruptive innovations almost never create inciting events. Just as a reminder, disruptive innovations are technologies that often come from outside an industry and shake it to its foundations. Think of digital photography and the film industry or cheap digital timepieces and the Swiss watch empire, or even Twitter and contemporary journalism.

In each case the disruptive innovation was the exact opposite of an "inciting event". In fact, the hallmark of a disruptive innovation is that the incumbent industry doesn't see it coming until it's too late. The first digital cameras were toys that produced laughably bad images. Digital watches were cheap junk, and Twitter? That was just for nerds and West coast hipsters to share what they had for breakfast.

It was the rare few within established industries who saw the birth of these technologies and many others as their conversion on the road to Damascus.

In the world of screenplay writing a plot without an inciting event lacks the narrative impulse to drive the film and it's main character forward. Jim Carey would have remained a daydreaming dullard, Peter Parker a clumsy chemistry geek and Elisabeth Bennet the miserable spouse of a synchophantic clergyman. They all would have experienced nothing that would have changed the status quo.

So it is with traditional media and disruptive innovations, because inciting events only recognized in hindsight have no power to engender change.

And so my simple, obvious insight is this: the narrative arc of traditional media's character development in an online world is doomed to bend toward tradgey. It's not that the character is flawed or evil. It's just that it had an inciting event in the first few minutes of its own movie and was out of the room getting popcorn.

For them it never happened. For the rest of us, the movie just dragged on far too long with nothing interesting happening - the unchanging character awakes one morning at the end of the picture, years after the spider bit, rubs his shoulder nostalgically and, as the credits roll, discovers he can shoot webs and climb walls.

 

The Hacking of NBC's Credibility

Just before the Winter Olympics started, NBC ran a piece about how easy it was hackers to get into and steal data from the cellphones and computers of Sochi-bound tourists. 

In the video, NBC’s  Chief Foreign Correspondent, Richard Engel, with the help of security expert Kyle Wilhoit, opens a fresh Android phone and a MacBook Air. According to the report immediately after the cellphone is fired up in a Russian cafe, it “gets hacked”. Meanwhile, within a day the Macbook Air (and a Thinkpad) also get hacked. In each case the “hackers” get access to documents, contacts and could, if they wanted, turn on the smartphone’s microphone and/or record phone conversations.

Problem was, the story was complete bullshit. Or, as security expert Robert Graham put it on his Errata Security blog "100 percent fraudulent" and “wrong in every salient detail”. 

First of all, despite the introduction about “families and tourists arriving in Sochi”, Engel was actually in Moscow, not Sochi. 

More importantly, in the video Engel and Wilhoit go to cafe with an Android phone. Engel claims that “before we finished our coffee” the phone was hacked. In the video they just turn on the phone and BAM, malicious software starts taken over the phone and stealing data.

Problem is, that couldn’t happen, and that’s not what happened. In a blog post Wilhoit wrote after the piece aired he explains: 

“First, all the attacks required some kind of user interaction. Whether to execute “applications” or to open a Microsoft Word document, all the attacks shown required user interaction in order to compromise the device.”

In the case of the cellphone, though not shown in the video, Engel would have had to go to a sketchy site and download the malicious software, and then ignore the warnings about the software the phone would have generated, unless security was turned off, which it was.

Graham, who called bullshit on the story, followed up, trying to simulate the malware attack Engel’s suffered.

Graham had to go to extraordinary lengths, including searching specifically for malicious code, before his phone was compromised. This even though he spoofed his location so it would appear he was browsing from Moscow.

Here’s the second point. It would make little difference whether Engel was in Moscow or Sochi or Calgary, Alberta. He didn’t get hacked because he was in Russia, he got hacked because he was deliberately browsing sketchy sites on the Web (sketchy sites, btw, that Google down ranks no matter what country you’re in).

In the case the of the laptops, Engel’s machines were not just randomly hacked, he and Wilhoit downloaded a suspicious Word document sent to him via email from someone he didn’t know. You can read the full report of what really happened, but was edited from the video on Wilhoit's blog.

So, to wrap up. NBC runs a video that suggests that tourists and family members arriving in Sochi will have their laptops and phones “hacked” almost immediately upon arrival. This is simply not true. Clicking stupidly on sketching sites or files on the Web in any country is not a good idea. Neither is spreading nonsense about malicious Russian hackers waiting to pounce.

This concerns me for a couple of reasons.

First, given the Snowden revelations about real U.S. spying on smartphones and laptops without any user knowledge or action, it’s pretty rich that an American media company would air a piece about uninitiated cyberspying by Russians.

Second, this video demonstrates, for the umpteenth time, how dreadful mainstream media is at telling stories about tech. The producers were either clueless, deliberating lying, unaware that the editing reduced the piece to a xenophobic parody or just interested in eyeballs.

And third, it also demonstrates what I think is a chronic belief on the part of traditional media that the web is the dark sewer of all things evil: child pornographers and molesters; bombers, terrorists, identify thieves and all-powerful Russian cyberspies with super viruses. This is born from ignorance, an ongoing suspicion of a technology many mainstream journalists continue to misunderstand and salivation about a juicy, easy story that breds fear, uncertainty and doubt. Sad, when journalists should actually work to make sense of the world.

And, it really makes you ask the question. If NBC gets this story so wildly, foolishly wrong, why should we believe this is a one-off?

Tang and the Panopticon

Lately, when I think about Rob Ford and the NSA, my thoughts turn to Tang. Tang, for those of you too young to remember, was an orange-flavoured drink spawned by the space program and made famous by John Glenn and Gemini astronauts. I drank it as a kid. And it was easy, back then, on steady diet of Tang for breakfast, to forget what real orange juice actually tasted like. It would have been forgivable to think, in fact, that Tang was orange juice.

And today, when the NSA is collecting and selectively examining email, telephone calls, communication metadata and browsing histories and when every patois-laced screed from Rob Ford’s mouth is captured on a cellphone cam, it’s easy to forget we once had privacy. Or, to come back to the Tang metaphor. It’s easy for us to think this is what privacy actually tastes like.

We now live in a panopticon. Our reality is that we may not know we are being watched, but know we could be. And, like felons in a panopticon prison, the fear of observation changes our behaviour. And, it changes our perception of public and private. It lowers our expectations for privacy, collectively.

And here’s what I’m really afraid of. Not the NSA and its ability to retroactively dig up dirt on citizens it needs to control; not the sifting and analysing of big data by companies keen on honing their marketing; not a covert web of citizen cameras ready to pounce on profane rants. It’s this: that all of it will change how we behave as citizens and humans. Without us realizing it, and slowly, the panopticon will make us all behave like frightened, wary convicts. And one day we will not only forget what orange juice tastes like, we will prefer Tang.

It’s already happening. We no longer marvel that Rob Ford’s drunken nonsense is caught on camera, we expect it. We no longer are surprised that Justin Beiber’s mug shot is seen around the world. Of course.

We watch shows like MI-5 or The Last Enemy, Person of Interest or Intelligence and don’t see them as a dystopic future. We almost believe they are documentaries, capturing a real world where hidden eyes are on us all. And we have come to believe that is a good thing, that it prevents crime, stops terrorists and only interferes with the lives of those who have something to hide. They wear us down, just as earlier mass media taught us guns were an important part of law and order, and pretty cool.

Come on, who wouldn’t want to be able to hack a Bluetooth headset, control traffic lights or pull up a person’s CV and criminal history from a chip in your brain or the keyboard under the blur of your fingers? Cyberspying is the new sexy.

And at the other end of the spectrum, cheerlebrities (blond college cheerleaders with an online fan club) share their hairstyles and abs, meals eaten in private become filter-soaked public phone art and an entire generation has turned their private lives public, as if privacy isn’t really all that and a ham sandwich after all.

It wears us down, you and me. And the danger is, as astronaut Buzz Aldrin said last year, “Tang sucks”.





 

Nest Acquisition Eggs on Google Hate. Why?

The Verge raises a really interesting question: Why is everyone disappointed by Google buying Nest? Up until this acquisition, I think most tech nerds (aka non-normals) were pretty sanguine about Google, and were willing to trade some privacy for convenience (Google Now comes to mind). Certainly it's the case that Google was far more trusted than Facebook or even Twitter. At the same time, most tech nerds were hot on Nest. But, now that Google has acquired Nest, a lot of folks want to rip the stylish thermostats off their walls. The sentiment easily could have gone the other way, since Nest brings Google a user-centric and design sensibility it needs. Thoughts? 

Beyond Text - A Two-Day Course for Communications Professionals

Since about 1990 we've been able to produce rich media content - video, audio, pictures and animations - first on CD-ROMs and then on the web. So, it's odd that today many organizations still rely so heavily, if not exclusively, on text-centric communication products.

And, even when those brochures or newsletters or annual reports are put online, they often arrive packaged as static PDFs, carbon copies of their print siblings, but taking no advantage of the medium they find themselves in.

This is even stranger when you look around on commuter trains, coffees shops and street corners and see how many folks are getting their information, news and entertainment on the go. It's delivered to the palms of their hands.

So, while the world is going increasing mobile, many companies are delivering their products and messages to devices that wouldn't have been out of place three decades ago.

To help those companies move beyond text, I've teamed up with Oakville-based communications specialist Donna Papacosta to deliver a two-day workshop for communications professionals who want to lead their companies into the mobile-first reality all around us. The intimate, hands-on workshop will cover topics such as:

  • Text vs. rich media
  • Why think of mobile first?
  • Reimagining the traditional creative brief
  • Big concerns: capacity, training, scalability
  • The product landscape for rich media development
  • From strategy to tactics: making media that makes sense


Our intention is to provide you with the concepts, tools and strategies to get you organization on a path to mobile-first content creation that's practical, scalable And in sync with your overall communications strategy.

The course takes place on March 20-21 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Centre for Social Innovation at 215 Spadina Avenue in Toronto. Learn more or register.

 

 

The New Soma

In 1985 Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it he argued that we were living not in a dystopic Orwellian world, but, rather in the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley. Back then Postman viewed television as the pervasive narcotic, soma, that lulled the populace into submission. In the past few months I’ve come to believe soma has a new name: viral fluff.

Social media has always had its share of noise to signal - cats farting the macarana on a skateboard, a dopey kid on his way home from the dentist etc. But lately it feels like the social web has gotten markedly stupider, tackier and has had its bullshit detector smashed to atoms.

How else can you explain intelligent men and women uploading inspirational posters that wouldn't be out of place in a 12-year-old girl’s bedroom from 1975? Or, explain why rational humans would fall, over and over, for faked “flash mobs”, a Kimmel-crafted twerk failure or asshats on a plane message exchange fabrications.

Maybe it’s because the creation and discovery of viral videos, photos etc. used to be a kind of grassroots, diffuse activity. Now sites like mashable.com, break.com, upworthy.com, buzzfeed.com and the Huffington Post make it possible to be spoonfed all manner of semi-amusing nonsense: heartwarming pet antics, plucky youth triumph, surprise reunions, side-boob celeb shots and animated gifs of painful parkour flubs.

Or maybe its because headline writers have stumbled upon the new clickbait headlines that contain the golden phrases like “what she did next will reduce you to tears”, “proctologists hate him”, “the one thing you need to do to reduce belly fat”, “here are 14 things you need to hear now” or “I never knew doctors were lying to me until I listened to what she had to say”.

Whatever the reason, we not only have the new soma, we’re the pushers.

Late last December I did a major cull of my facebook friends list because I got tired of all this nonsense in the social media stream. But even now, with a well-honed list of friends, there are days when I wonder what two-by-four collectively smacked the Internet in the frontal lobe.

And what is most disturbing is that mainstream media outlets, who look jealously at the viral fluff upstarts, are aping the values, curation of nonsense and the huckster headlines.

As Luke O’Neil pointed out in a recent Esquire post, The Year We Broke the Internet, the media complicity creates a virtuous circle of viral inbreeding:

“Readers are gullible, the media is feckless, garbage is circulated around, and everyone goes to bed happy and fed.”

So, not only is there no downside for social media mavens who regurgitate tripe, there’s no real incentive for media outlets to check it or just ignore it and every reason to join the fun.

I want to believe this is a passing fad, that the social web right now is like a notional aunt who just got email and is spamming relatives with phony virus notices and PowerPoints of nature’s grandeur.

But as a friend of mine said, “I predict it will get worse and worse.”

So, maybe I’m as bad as everyone else, gullibly buying and spreading a story that’s just too good to be true.


 

Writing With Little Tools

If you work in an office you will be excused if you believe Microsoft Word is where you should start and finish your writing. But, Word is the Walmart of writing tools. You can enter its doors, be met by Clippy the greeter, and get everything you need, but at a cost.

Like Walmart, Word is huge, monolithic and a bit of a bully. It offers a sanitized, homogenized and safe environment that lulls you into complacency and lowers your expectations. It makes you believe it is your friend. It is not.

I suggest, instead you consider taking your writing needs to a village high street where little shops offer bespoke software that does small tasks with artisanal care. And, I suggest you go there with your tablet.

One of the great benefits of tablet computers is that they bring to the foreground one application at a time. That means that the solitary task of writing becomes far more distraction free than on a desktop or laptop that is papered with beckoning windows.

And one benefit of single apps is that many of them are tailored to the specific tasks that go into good writing. Use them well, at the appropriate time and then pass the fruits of your writing labour from one app to the next. You’ll find you produce writing that is organized, concise and clear.

When I start out on a longer writing project I use Penultimate on the iPad along with a stylus to sketch out general ideas and topics. I treat it like a Moleskine notebook.

Once I my first notions on “paper” and out of my head, I’ll move to MindNode, a mindmapping application that turns scribbled brainstorms into a visual hierarchy that can also be exported as a text outline. I’m still thinking about the writing project at a high level here, and the map view lets me see the broad strokes of my plan and allows me to map out subsections while still having a view to the big picture.

I then take that outline and bring it into my favourite distraction-free writing tool, iAWriter. iAWriter (and a newer version iA Writer Pro) lets me focus on the specific sentences and words I need to expand on my broad themes and structures. iA Writer Pro will even dim out everything but verbs, adjectives, conjunctions etc. so you can spot unfortunate echoes and overuse.

Once I’ve polished the piece I can take it into Pages or Google Docs and from either, export it as a clean, no-hassle Microsoft Word document ready to be used by friends and co-workers still trapped in that big box word processor.

That may seem like a lot of steps, but take a look at another store, Lee Valley Tools, to appreciate why this is a sensible approach. Lee Valley is a specialty shop for woodworkers, gardeners and precision-focussed craftspeople. Check the display of wood chisels or handsaws. There are dozens. Each does one precise, small job perfectly. An artisan uses one at a time to shape, hone and polish his or her work. In the right hands, they render things of beauty.

While artisans could do good work with a single tool, they understand that their best comes from the judicious use of ideal implements. Likewise, you could outline your writing in Word and then flesh it out in the same tool. But Word is not an ideal outline processor, and does not give you a visual representation of your work. It is vast and adequate, but not optimal.

I long ago gave up bloated Word for leaner, more focussed writing tools. I think that's made me better at my craft. And, I'd much rather give my custom to the authors of small elegant apps that appeal not just for their function but for their clarity of purpose.




 

An Old Friend for the New Year

Just after Christmas I got a new mobile device on sale. It's about the size of a Nexus 7 tablet, has a touch screen, comes with a stylus and can recognize handwriting and even introduces geometric perfection to the shapes I draw on its six inch screen. It's called the Apple Newton MessagePad 120, a ghost from the past, and I remember why I loved it, all those years ago.

When it was introduced in 1993, the Newton MessagePad was the most high profile member of the personal digital assistant (PDA) family. It's most  notable, and most often maligned, feature was its ability to, sometimes, convert printing and handwriting into text. By the time the MessagePad 120 came along in 1994, many of the bugs had been worked out of the device and I used it as a note taking, project management and writing tool for consultancy work I did for the Ontario Science Centre. It was a serious tool.

Back then it seemed impossibly light and portable, given its power. Now, placed next to my iPhone, it is an ungainly, slow brick with a dull, almost unreadable and unlit screen. In the 90s I used it for almost everything, now I can use it for nothing. It doesn't connect to my computer, talk to my phone or chatter with the Internet. It is as solitary as paper, but requires 4 AA batteries. I sold mine years ago when I was cleaning out the basement.

Then, a few days ago, I saw one sitting alone oddly enough in an antique shop filled with clothing, and snapped it up. I took it home and fed it a handful of batteries. It fired up with a familiar chime. And, the old magic is still there. The calendar app, for example, allows you to handwrite an appointment at the appropriate time during a day - then it turns it into text, in place. Draw a rough approximation of a circle, and the note app will smooth it out for you. Scribble through your text and it vanishes in a cartoon cloud. 

Some of these interface tricks have been refined and sped up in modern smartphones, others have been forgotten. They serve only as artifacts of interface design paths abandoned by Apple and others when virtual keyboards, voice and multitouch replaced styli as the main ways we interact with small mobile devices. But, overall, the MessagePad was a remarkable bellwether for a new generation of personal digital assistants and then, with the iPhone, the screen-centric smartphone. Using it back then you could see and touch the future. It was a new paradigm for computing that would take two decades to mature. That's an important lesson.

One other thing my reacquaintance with the MessagePad taught me - value is time sensitive. When it first came out the MessagePad 120 cost just over $600. I sold my first one in 2001 for $75.  A few days ago I bought this one for a toonie.