Thursday, February 27, 2014

The picture of a picture picture

Morning shoot
London, ON
February 2014
For more Thematic, click here. All will be explained.
Warning: I'm feeling philosophical today. Not sure why. Maybe I'm overdue. Either way, I've been wondering about the photographic process. Here goes...

The smartphone era is reshaping how we take and share pictures. On one hand, it means we often feel comfortable leaving our so-called "real" cameras at home because we figure the phone should be good enough to capture whatever we come across when we're out.

While it can mean pictures that trend more toward the casual snapshot instead of the artfully composed or exposed shot, as long as we're shooting, it's a good thing.

Also a good thing: the picture-of-a-picture picture. These days, when I do a still life shoot, when I'm done with the main event I like to grab my phone or tablet and take a picture of the shoot itself. It gives me a chance to step back a bit and remember the meta moment, what it felt like to be there as I fiddled with the camera and tried to tell whatever the story was.

Because this particular shot was taken with my iPad, the highlights are blown, the resolution isn't quite where I'd like it to be, and the colors are, um, a little off. This won't be blown up, framed and mounted. But it still serves an important purpose. A contextual one. 

It's also a reminder that when you're trying to tell the same story from lots of different perspectives, you'll use every tool you've got. Besides, I'm slowly learning that the end result is only part of the journey.

Your turn: A time when you stepped back and took it all in. Please discuss.

Is your Apple product safe?

This morning, I chatted live with Marci Ien on CTV's Canada AM about the security vulnerability that could make it easy for hackers to pick off secure traffic from your iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) or Mac computer (OS X operating system).

The video from the interview is here.

During the interview, we talked about how important it is to ensure your computer has been properly updated, and why you need to install all available updates if it hasn't been. Here's a quick rundown:

On your iOS device:

Head to your home screen (double-click the home button if you're not sure) and tap the following, in order
  • Settings app
  • General (it's on the left)
  • Software Update (on the right)
It may take a few seconds to check itself. Once it's done, if your software has been updated, it'll say "iOS 7.0.6 - Your software is up to date" If this is the case, you're protected, and can head back to bed.

If it says an update is available to download and install, select Update and go make some tea. It'll take about 5 minutes do download and install before it reboots your device.

Update from the future (otherwise known as March 10th): Apple has released iOS 7.1. So the whole update process works exactly the same, except now the number has changed. Capish?

On your Mac:

Head to your desktop, then:
  • Click the Apple menu at the absolute top, left-hand corner of your screen
  • Select Software Update
This opens up the App Store, checks your computer for ALL available updates to the operating system and installed software, then allows you to click Update for each one, or all.

If your operating system is at 10.9.2, you're all up-to-date.

If it's an earlier version (10.9, 10.9.1, 10.8 - Mountain Lion, or 10.7 - Lion), you'll be given the option to update. It'll take between 10 and 15 minutes to download, install and reboot your device.

As an FYI, clicking on the Apple Menu, then About This Mac, then the Software Update button gets you to the same place.

What if your machine or device is a bit older?

Anything with Mac OS X 10.6 or older (Snow Leopard) will NOT be patched. If possible, upgrade the operating system to 10.7 or newer. If that isn’t possible, now may be the time to consider replacing the hardware

The same thing applies to iOS: iOS 5 or earlier will not be patched. Either update to iOS 6 (not all older devices are able to be updated. iOS 7 only runs on the Phone 4 and later models, 5th-generation iPod touches, and iPad 2 and later) or consider replacing the hardware, as it will be increasingly vulnerable to this kind of attack in future.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Don't eat those M&Ms just yet!

Waiting for the inevitable
London, ON
February 2014
Thematic's theme, return to the scene of the crime, is here.
I don't eat this stuff too often - I think it would kill me - but when I do, I have a funny little habit.

I don't eat them first. I can't just rip the bag open and dig in. I have to put them in a bowl, or arrange them just so on the table. I have to wait for the light to be just right - hello, early morning sunshine - and I can't be rushed.

Which means the bag often sits quietly off to the side until the conditions are just right. I get asked when I'm going to open it. And I can't answer the question. I'll know when the stars align. And then we'll take a few pictures to remember the moment.

In the end, it means the family photo album is peppered with semi-regular sets of M&Ms - all types, but usually peanut - as well as Reese's Pieces, or even Smarties. Do I eat the red ones last? I'll never say. But I'll do my best to remember what it all looked like before I made them disappear for good.

Your turn: Shooting the same things over and over, over a period of years. Why?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Monday, February 24, 2014

Thematic Photographic 283 - Return to the scene of the crime

Peanuts. Always peanuts.
London, ON
February 2014
I'm somewhat ashamed to admit I haven't been shooting as much lately as I'd like. I think I've been grabbing a lot of snaps with the smartphone or tablet, but that's not the same as making a date with the DSLR, pulling the tripod out and having a little fun through the lens.

So this weekend that's just what I did. With a bunch of M&Ms. Because I knew they wouldn't complain. And when I was done, I knew I could munch on them. Within reason: gotta watch myself, after all.

This long overdue kitchen table photo session got me thinking: How often do we take lots of different pictures of the same thing? And how do we decide which pose, which perspective, wins?

Well, this week, we won't have to. As part of this week's theme, return to the scene of the crime, we'd like you to post a pic of a scene to get things started. Then, later in the week, post another pic of the same thing, only make it a different pose, a different perspective, and different way of looking at the same thing. Two pics, two days, two ways of seeing the same thing.

Got it? I can't wait to see what you come up with.

Your turn: Take TWO pics that evoke this week's shot. Post the first one early in the week, and the second one - same subject, different perspective - later in the week. Leave comments here letting folks know where to find it. Visit other participants and tell your mom, too. For more info on how Thematic works, click here. And thanks!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Talking head on a small screen

As a rule, I can't stand seeing myself on-screen. Likewise, I have a hard time listening to myself on radio. I don't look or sound like I think I look or sound, and the sounds and visuals are usually a little too jarring for comfort.

I realize that sounds funny given how often I do this. Still, I like to review the results on occasion to ensure I'm up to snuff, and to continually figure out better ways to deliver the message. I learned early on that good journalists have thick skin, and aren't afraid to self-critique. Maybe I'll be a good journalist someday. Until then, I'll review my work - with difficulty - and try to raise the bar every time I head into a studio.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, while poking around the Internet, I found this search page on the CTV News website that helpfully tracks my appearances on CTV News Channel and Canada AM. Here's the link. Please don't laugh.

Watching Olympic hockey before dawn

So the sky is still dark here in the Great White North, but like pretty much everyone else in this country, I find myself awake, bathed in the glow of a flat screen TV, waiting for the Canada-Sweden Olympic gold medal hockey game to get underway in Sochi.

It's quite the kick to live in a country where a sport is so revered that it almost becomes religion. Where complete strangers come together to celebrate a common love of a seemingly simple sport that defines a disproportionately large chunk of our national identity.

For the past couple of weeks, we've all watched in awe as Canadian athletes in a bunch of sports we don't much "get" distinguish themselves on the world stage. As proud as we typically reserved Canadians are of the almost-world-leading medal haul, the sad truth remains that we won't pay much attention to sports like half-pipe snowboarding, slopestyle or bobsledding until the next Winter Games roll around. It shouldn't be that way - I'd love to watch this stuff all the time, but for some reason most of these sports will never crack the dominance of the so-called major sports in mainstream news cycles.

But hockey is something else entirely. To a certain extent, it is a part of who we are. Like many kids, I played shinny on an outdoor rink in a half-built park a block away from my house. We'd played until we couldn't feel our toes, then head inside to warm up, then we'd come back out, shovel the ice and play some more.

As a nation, we've stopped our everyday life twice already this week. Our son's grade 8 class livestreamed it on an in-class computer. My wife, a teacher, loaded it up on the computer, as well. Our daughter's high school opened up the auditorium and everyone watched the women's hockey game on the big screen. Smartphones, usually frowned upon during school hours, were front and centre as she and her friends madly tweeted and Facebooked and Instagrammed and Tumblrd the game.

Our hard-studying daughter seemed pleasantly surprised that her school administrators threw caution to the wind and allowed hockey to take precedence over academics. She spoke for hours about what it felt like to be in the stands, surrounded by a buzz that her already-spirit-filled school had never quite felt before. Her voice bubbled with excitement that she had experienced something so memorable.

I told her this experience was something she'd keep with her for a very long time. A touchstone, a warm moment she'd be able to call up anytime she needed a happy. History. And in her young life, being part of something that's bigger than she is, that connects her to a larger whole - students, friends, community, country - is an incredibly powerful learning experience that more than justifies the few hours of classroom instruction that she missed this week.

Today, her team - indeed, our country's team, because we all feel this team, this game, belongs to us - will either win or lose. And as we fill our darkened living room with pillows, comforters, a confused dog and a stready stream of coffee, snacks and tension, we aren't just watching a mere game. There's nothing "mere" about it. And we'll hold the powerful memories of this day with us for as long as we're capable of remembering.

Go Canada. And thank you - to the team, to those who've won just as much as those who have lost, to the country cheering from the sidelines and from far away - for teaching my kids how the world is supposed to work.

Update - 9:20 a.m. - It's over. Canada beats Sweden 3-0 to take the gold medal. The rest of the country can now go back to sleep. Well done, team. I think what matters more than the fact that they won is how they won. Consider my kids inspired. Everyone else, too.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

One year on...

A year ago tonight, we lost my wife's mom.

Calendars can be cruel in so many ways, as they hang milestones like this one ahead of you, immovable objects that loom ever larger the closer you get to them. At the same time, you struggle to hold onto moments from before all of this happened, and wish you could somehow bend time altogether, to go back, even for just a moment, and have one more...anything.

Reality isn't quite so neat or controllable. And a year on, it feels as unbelievable today as it did then, a strange warp in time that we all know is inevitable for all of us, but still hurts like hell when it actually occurs.

In the past year, my wife has continued to teach me - and everyone around her - the value of family in navigating the darkness. Being surrounded by, and connected to, a tight group of family and friends-who-may-as-well-be-family has been a godsend. Despite living with the surreal reality of loss, she's figured out how to treasure all that we still have.

So as I listen to her speak with her dad - every day - and share memories of Bubby Zelda with our kids, I can't help but think that my mother-in-law would smile at where we are today. Whatever lessons my in-laws taught my wife when she was our kids' age, they're being well applied as we figure out what to do next, and where to go.

As difficult as it is to lose a parent, I'd hate to think what life would be like if we hadn't had them in the first place, or weren't blessed enough to have grown up in a caring household that prepared us for everything life would ultimately throw our way. Against that backdrop, it's a stark reminder that we're lucky to have had what we had. And continue to have now.

Related links:

Just say no to GMO

This one seriously makes me wonder.

On Carl Sagan's imagination

"Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere."
Carl Sagan

Thursday, February 20, 2014

If only dogs never got old

When he was young
London, ON
January 2009
Since we're looking way, way back this week (click here to share your own Thematic oldie) I thought I'd gang up on our dog, Frasier, for a bit. Because as I was sifting through old pictures, he kept showing up at the top of the pile. I guess we really do like him.

Unlike humans, though, he doesn't seem to have changed much in the 5-ish years since this was taken. Visually, at least, he still has the goofy face, with the same silvery-white fur, and the same pathetic look that he gives us when he knows he's done something wrong.

In the overall scheme of things, "wrong" is usually pretty benign, typically involving an adventure in a garbage can, or someone's backpack, or the pantry. His heart is always in the right place, and he's as lovable now as he was then.

Beyond the visuals, though, this picture still takes me back in time. To a time before he was sick - he was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes a little over two years after this was taken. To a time when I looked at him and never had to wonder about his future. To a time when we seemed to have fewer worries, about him, about everything, than we have today. To a time when we still had all our parents with us. If only I could reach through this picture and grab hold of the life we had then.

Alas, time moves in one direction, and at one constant speed, and there's no going back. I keep reminding myself of this often stark truth, but I never quite accept it, either.

Your turn: What's he thinking here?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On leading an imperfect life

"Life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful."
Annette Funicello
I'm not entirely sure where folks got the idea that life has to be served up on a bed of roses, but I wish we'd all stop it right about now. The universe is filled with all sorts of chaos, and we will most definitely trip over chunks of it along the way. That we'll get hurt in the process is immaterial: I wasn't born with a guarantee, and I'm guessing you weren't, either.

Besides, there's often more beauty in imperfection than initially meets the eye. And the choice, as it so often is, remains ours. We can either lament the lack of perfection in our own lives, or we can use the time we've got to appreciate the craziness around us. The roller coaster's going to serve up a wild ride whether we like it or not. So we may as well buckle up, open our eyes and drink it all in. Messiness and all.

Watching the Ukraine burn, live

It's a sign of our ultra-connected times that anyone with a computer, tablet or smartphone and enough available bandwidth can click on a link and watch the riots in Kyiv, live and unedited.

Here's a link to CTV News coverage of the event.

As I watch the surreal scenes play out on my screen, I'm reminded that what we have here in Canada - relative peace, relative freedom, relative trust in government - is still a distant dream in many parts of the world. Sadly, it looks like nothing is going to change anytime soon.

Related links:

Monday, February 17, 2014

Thematic Photographic 282 - Go way back

When they were young
London, ON
Summer 2001
We're going to shake things up a bit with this week's Thematic theme, go way back. Instead of shooting something new, I'd like us to dig into our archives and pull out old stuff. Or scan something - a photo, an artifact, anything - from way back and share it here.

If you haven't looked at it in a while, if it's gathering dust, if it's a look back at a part of your life you thought you had forgotten, we want to see it.

As far as this pic goes, it's a reminder that our kids - all now teenagers - grow too quickly for words. And I need to do a better job remembering what each stage was like.

Your turn: Grab a photo that evokes this week's theme - go way back - and post it to your blog or website. Leave a comment here letting everyone know where to find it. Visit other participants and feel free to share more snippets through the week. For more info on how Thematic works, click here. If you tweet, feel free to use the #ThematicPhotographic hashtag. And have fun with it, because photography should be fun, and that's what Thematic is all about, too.

Please don't steal the shopping carts

No shopping here
London, ON
January 2014
I wanted to round out this week's emptiness theme - head here if you'd like to share yours - with this rather sad-looking scene from a local parking lot. As much as we complain about this year's winter that will not end, it's been a boon for anyone who revels in melancholy weather photos.

And this is as melancholy as it gets, a reminder that as miserable as we may be when the storms roll in, the person who's got to corral these stolen and/or abandoned shopping carts has it far worse.

Whoever ultimately collected this steel chariot, I hope he/she paused for a moment to appreciate the aesthetic of the scene. Okay, probably not.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Empty? Maybe not.

Blue mountains in the distance
Laval, QC
August 2013

Thematic. Emptiness. Here.
The Mars Curiosity rover got some global headlines last week when it snapped a picture of Earth from its perch on the surface of the Red Planet.

Like Voyager 1's Pale Blue Dot picture before it, I spent more time than I should have staring at it and wondering about its meaning. At first glance, both pictures may look fairly simple. There's no detail to speak of, little more than a single pixel of light. No sign of activity, humanity, or life.

But if we could look more closely, we'd see every human alive on that day. We've see the sum total of life on our very isolated, very fragile planet. We'd see it all. Only the limitations of technology keep us from having that visibility.

And so it goes with this shot of Laval's western tip. That's Deux-Montagnes (aka Two Mountains) in the distance, and as much as this scene seems empty of life or activity, a deeper dive into the limited-pixel perspective here would bear out countless lives playing out in real-time. It's a reminder that not everything is ever as it initially seems, and an inspiration to keep shooting stuff like this.

Your turn: Who lives here?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Shattered riverside windows

How much longer?
Thamesford, ON
May 2013
Thematic. Emptiness. Here.
There's a mill beside the river on the east side of this small town in the middle of some of the most fertile agricultural land on the planet.

I don't know how long this place has been abandoned, but from the looks of it the elements are slowly and inevitably winning the battle to reclaim this once-thriving structure. The back half of the property has already been demolished, and every time I drive by and see vehicles in the muddy parking lot in the remaining building's shadow, I wonder how much longer it can hold out.

Which is kind of sad, because they don't make landmarks like this anymore. And once they're gone, they're gone.

As empty as this place is, though, it still exerts an influence on the area around it, still stakes its place at the edge of town, still manages to touch those who are just passing through. It may be empty of people, but certainly not of spirit.

Friday, February 14, 2014

What's the point of technology?

It's budget season here in London, and like many municipalities across the country, civic governments find themselves trying to rein in costs for the next year while still delivering a reasonable level of services to taxpayers.

It's a delicate balancing act that ultimately pleases no one. And I have a huge degree of admiration for both the elected officials who look for opportunities to eliminate waste, and the city staff members who bring years of expertise to the table, as well.

One of the dangers of the process revolves around the propensity, as things wind down to the final, critical chapters and everyone's frantically looking for Hail Mary savings, to pull out the wrong knife and cut the wrong thing for the wrong reason. So when I saw a councillor, Paul Van Meerbergen, call the city's information technology spending into question, my antennae immediately went up.

I don't mean to sound like a know-it-all, but this was no studied call to understand the value of IT. Instead it was little more than a simplistic grab for headlines, an easy-way-out attempt to get the masses to rise up and fight Big Bad IT managers with their Big Bad Budget Requests. By that logic, IT folks spend their time paying top dollar for tech toys that citizens don't want or need.

So I called hogwash, and was quoted in Chip Martin's piece in today's London Free Press: Expert warns against cutting tech spending. My take: IT is an investment in the city's future. And we've been deficient in this regard for so long that other cities in our region - hello, Waterloo - have been eating our lunch. As an example, Mr. Martin and I spoke about the city's website, london.ca, that until its long-delayed upgrade last year had languished in circa-1997 mediocrity for so long that I'm sure potential investors laughed out loud when they first saw it. A city that penny-pinches on tech is hardly a city that understands how to function - and compete - in today's digital economy.

Cool factor: Mr. Martin also interviewed Matt Brown for the article. He's currently the councillor for London's Ward 7 (coincidentally, the ward where I live) and is running for Mayor of our burg. It was an honour to be quoted alongside him, and an honour to add some perspective to a debate that, if mismanaged, promises to hold London even further back in the municipal competitiveness sweepstakes than it already is.

I'm not sure if Mr. Van Meerbergen reads this, but in case he does, I invite him to share his detailed assessment of why current levels of IT spend are "heavy" (his words), and how he plans to ensure London keeps pace with an even lighter allocation of resources to this critical pillar of civic strategy. In fact, while we're at it, I'll invite our Mayor, Joe Fontana, to share his thoughts, as well. Because digital era discussions should take place within a digital context. Over to you, gentlemen...

Update: I was going to tweet the link to this entry directly to both Mr. Van Meerbergen and Mr. Fontana. Unfortunately, Mr. Van Meerbergen doesn't seem to have a working Twitter account, while Mr. Fontana's account - @joefontana_pc - was created in 2010 to support his previous mayoralty campaign, and has one tweet to its credit. They're similarly absent from Facebook, or any other reasonably current online platform where citizens gather. I could email them (pvanmeer@london.ca and jfontana@london.ca), but that doesn't seem to be in the spirit of public discussion. Likewise, I'm welcome to send a fax (the Mayor's # is 519.661.5308, while Mr. Van Meerbergen's is 519.661.5933) but I never bothered setting it up on my multifunction printer because, well, who the heck faxes anymore?

It's somewhat difficult to have a digital-era discussion when your elected officials haven't yet joined the digital era to begin with. In the end, maybe it's a sign we aren't spending enough on IT. And maybe we have the wrong people calling the shots on what constitutes proper spending and proper prioritization (we'll leave the $97,000 lawyer's bill for the Billy T affair for discussion another day.)

All told, it's something to keep in mind as the campaign for the November 2014 municipal election gathers speed.

#TechSeven - Google shows the love, and diapers get wired

If you tuned into my weekly segment with Barry Morgan on Montreal's CJAD 800, here's a quick rundown of some of the things we chatted about. If you weren't able to tune in, we'll be back at it next week at 2:00 p.m. Eastern. Hope you can join us.

Here goes...

ONE - Google's Valentine's Day present

Did you forget about Valentine's Day? Don't have time to hit up the florist before sundown? Don't worry, Google has you covered with its Valentine's Day doodle.

If you're new to the doodle thing, Google often marks special occasions and holidays - Albert Einstein's birthday, the anniversary of the first moon landing, the Olympics, etc. - with Doodles, where it replaces the Google logo on its main search page with either a graphic, or an interactive app. You might remember the Pac Man game or playable Fender guitar, both examples of doodle-dom at its best.


Go to google.com or google.ca to find today's doodle. Click on the dancing chocolate box where the Google logo would usually be. Using your mouse or touchscreen, create a customized chocolatey creation - including your choice of dark or milk chocolate, strawberries, sprinkles and even ants (ew!) - and then share your creation on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

TWO - Tinder - the new online breakfast of Olympic champions

Speaking of the Olympics, if our Olympians aren't tweeting, they may be doing, ah, something else.

If you're single, you may already have used an online service to find a mate. eHarmony and Match.com are the 800 pound gorillas of the online dating space, and Facebook has also become a popular choice for this kind of thing. Tinder is newer, having been introduced in October 2012. It's an iOS app - for iPhones and iPads - and it's billed as a simpler way to find someone.

Because it's mobile-based, it also makes it easy to connect with people nearby. And now comes a report that Olympic athletes are doing just that in Sochi - so when they're not competing for gold, they're apparently pulling out their iPhones and hooking up.

Olympic hookup culture isn't anything new. Every games, winter and summer, stories of, um, unpublishable and airable activity abound (here's a summary from 2012, and a timeline from Time magazine). Combine thousands of young people in incredible shape in a limited geographic area and something's bound to happen. Now, mobile technology makes the process even easier.

Alas, I don't think this will get much TV coverage.

THREE - Netflix - the new king of the Internet

House of Cards is arguably the first truly successful TV series produced not by a major television network, but by an Internet streaming service: Netflix. Well, the series is so popular - and so acclaimed, with Emmy and Golden Globe awards to its credit - that you might notice its impact after Netflix posted all 13 new episodes of its second season online at 3:01 this morning. That's because studies of Internet data use show that so many people watch streaming movies and TV shows from Netflix at night that EVERYONE'S Internet speeds slow down by about one-third. Today's Netflix crush is expected to have an even bigger impact, with some experts saying the TV show alone will consume 40% of ALL available Internet bandwidth.

It's like someone using all the water in the firehose, leaving precious little water and pressure for everyone else.

This comes after Netflix fans launched an online petition to convince the company to release the episodes early. Why? With a giant snowstorm bearing down on the U.S. East Coast, they wanted to hunker down and watch their favourite TV show available when they were stuck at home to weather out the storm. Did it work? No. But it's another sign that the Internet is profoundly changing how we watch television.

So if your Internet is slow, blame Netflix. Stubborn Netflix. And if your House of Cards doesn't play smoothly tonight or this weekend, it's because everyone else is trying to watch it at the same time.

FOUR - Federal budget fallout - Rural Internet users lose out, again

This week's get-rid-of-the-deficit federal budget held the line on spending, but still included a few goodies to keep voters happy in advance of the next federal election in 2015. One such goodie was $305 million over the next 5 years to bring high-speed Internet access to 280,000 Canadian households in rural or remote areas of the country.

Rural Internet speeds are a critical indicator of national competitiveness. People living outside urban areas have traditionally been underserved in this regard, and have had to put up with either slow Internet connections or no Internet connections at all - and in all cases they've had to pay through the nose for the privilege. In the digital age, it forces rural citizens into a disadvantaged state, and ultimately compromises national competitiveness compared to countries that get it.

So the money from the feds is nice in theory, but not in reality. I wrote an article for Yahoo Canada that outlines why this is a terrible deal: Federal budget 2014: Rural Internet boost is nowhere near enough

Why? Because other countries are vastly outspending us, and we're falling further behind. The U.S. is spending upwards of $350 billion on its national broadband plan. Australia, which is geographically similar to Canada - population concentrated in cities, with lots of open space in between - spent $43 billion. Our pitiful "investment" actually replaces two programs that were cancelled in 2012, and the level of spending is now LESS than it was beforehand.

What's worse,  the feds promised in 2001 to bring high-speed Internet to every Canadian household by 2004. We're still waiting. This either needs to be our next Manhattan Plan, or our leaders should stop pretending they get it. Because this week's announcement shows they don't.

FIVE- Wearables update - behold the electronic diaper

Lately, we've been talking a lot about wearable computing. Smartwatches like the Pebble and Galaxy Gear, glasses like Google's Glass and those increasingly popular fitness bracelets could be joined this year by an Apple iWatch. But wearables don't stop there. Sensor- and processor-laden hats, helmets, shoes and even jackets are on the horizon.

But diapers? A Japanese university professor has demonstrated an inexpensive sensor that detects wetness and signals the caregiver when a change is needed. Why is this notable? The sensor itself is cheap - important in a disposable product - because it's printed using an inkjet printer. Printable technology is an increasingly popular and cost-effective way of turning even mundane objects - like diapers - into smart ones. Expect the printable revolution to continue.

SIX - BlackBerry BBM updated - now iOS and Android users get free calling

BlackBerry continues to release updates to its BlackBerry Messenger software. This week, it updated the iOS and Android versions to (finally) include free BBM-to-BBM voice calling using either Wi-Fi or cell networks (no need to use your minutes if you don't want to.) It also adds support for the BBM Channels social media feature. The Apple and Google apps now match the capabilities that BlackBerry device-users have had all along.

If you have an old BlackBerry, BBM's been updated, as well. So hit up the App World and get your free upgrade.

The bad news? The guy who headed the BBM division, Andrew Bocking, has left the company as part of an ongoing stream of executive departures in the wake of CEO John Chen's arrival. Don't expect the changes to slow down anytime soon.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

On being empathetic to all

"How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these."
George Washington Carver
This quote rocked me a little - okay, a lot - when I first read it. How quick we can be to judge. And how quickly we forget how little - time, circumstance, whatever - actually separates us.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Long after everyone leaves

Abandoned to the waves
Grand Bend, ON
July 2013
Thematic's emptiness week starts here.
This glorious example of the vanishing art of sand castle building sat alone overlooking the waves of Lake Huron. Whoever built it was long gone.

Great Lakes aren't like oceans, mind you, so there was little risk of high tide swallowing the unseen stranger's work. But given the inevitable effects of wind and errant kids, dogs and seagulls, I'm guessing this ephemeral creation was gone by dusk, yet it continues to exist in pixellated form. Strange how that works.

Your turn: Who built this? What's his/her/their story?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

On life

"What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset."
Crowfoot
I don't know what life is, but I know what it's like to feel it almost slip away. And it's not a happy place to be.

So the next time you're outside, stop whatever it is that you're doing and watch the night sky. While you're at it, look for the buffalo or any other animal amid the freshly fallen snow, and take the time to track shadows in the fading evening light.

Because if you don't, you may never know what life looks, feels or even smells like. Which would be sadder than sad.

The greatest tragedy lies not in losing life. It's not living it in the first place.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Thematic Photographic 281 - Emptiness

All alone
London, ON
September 2013
The scene: the multi-level parking garage at the local hospital. I've clearly gotten lost on my way back to my car because not only is my vehicle nowhere to be seen, but no other vehicles are here, either. This is what I imagine Superman's Fortress of Solitude might feel like, except he couldn't just return to the elevator and have a quick MRI for that pesky Kryptonite problem. Sorry about that, Man of Steel.

So instead of trying to find my car and get the heck out of dodge, I took pictures. Because I've always followed the illogically photographic path. And level 7A just looked like it needed a little love from my lens. And I think I needed it, too.

Your turn: This week's theme, emptiness, should give us all lots of room for interpretation. Literal? Figurative? A mixture of the two? They're all right, because this isn't about right and wrong. Thematic is about shooting and sharing your fave pics on your blog or website, then letting folks know in a comment here where they can find them. If you're new to this nuttiness, head here. Otherwise, grab your camera, grab a friend and head out. Lots of emptiness awaits, and I can't wait to see what you come up with. I'm guessing I'm hardly alone in that regard. Happy shooting!

Love note to mom

My wife found this note last night among the forest of post-it notes that she keeps on the wall overlooking her desk.

If ever an ephemeral slip of paper can define a child, this is it. Our son is just the kind of kid to spontaneously walk up and give someone a hug. He still holds my hand when we're out, still talks to the dog as if he understands every word, still looks out for others before looking out for himself, and yes, still tells his mom he loves her.

When they coined the term gutteh neshumeh - Yiddish for "good soul" - I think they were thinking about him. It's an ideal that somehow rubs off on all of us in the family, and I hope that by sharing it here a little bit of Noah will rub off on you, too.

This is why we wear helmets

Normally I don't have a whole heck of a lot in common with uber-athletes who fly through the sky and do mind-blowing tricks before somehow landing back on terra firma to the universal adulation of everyone who watches. It takes an unbelievable mixture of guts, athleticism and finesse, and the best I can do is to sit in awe as they do their thing.

But when Czech slopestyle athlete Sarka Pancochova took a huge fall on the hill at the Sochi Olympics yesterday, it kind of hit home. She landed hard on a jump so big the camera can barely zoom out to capture it all. In the process, the back of her head slammed back against the slope. Click here to see what happened to her helmet.

I fancy myself a pretty out-there urban commando cyclist, someone unafraid to take on the worst that London-area drivers can dish out. When I ride, I wear a helmet. And it shocks me how few cyclists do the same, indeed how many parents don't bother to top their noggins - or their kids' heads, either.

Pancochova's helmet died so she didn't have to. Had she not been wearing it, I don't even want to imagine the damage that would have ensued. But because her sport insists on proper safety equipment, she walked away with little more than a great story to tell.

I'm guessing most folks still won't get the message because, let's face it, most people simply don't care. Of course, they should, but rational thought isn't modern humanity's best trait. Still, if this experience prompts one person to wear a helmet, and saves one life in the process, it will have been worth it.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

When life hits a crossroads

Which way do I turn?
Toronto, ON
August 2013
For more Thematic Made of Steel, click here.
I'll never get tired of shooting railroad tracks. Unlike any other transportation technology, they speak to the future as strongly as they speak to the past. They built this country, and they could yet build it again if we have the guts to change the way we think about infrastructure.

Call me an optimist, but every time I'm near a place like this, I dream about a future of high-speed, efficient, affordable train travel and how it can revolutionize the way we live in an energy-constrained, time-obsessed world.

Probably won't happen in my lifetime, because we're instead stuck with politicians more focused on pulling down flags at city hall (shame on you, Rob Ford) or defending themselves from fraud allegations while wantonly wasting taxpayer money on their own self-interest (I'll reserve judgment, Joe Fontana, but thanks to Billy T and other missteps you're still never getting my vote.) They have no guts, no vision. And yet voters who can't be bothered to engage in the democratic process continue to blindly support them, which further dooms us to more of the same.

Still, it never costs anything to dream, right?

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Rust in peace

London's metal tree returns to its maker
London, ON
August 2013
Thematic. Made of Steel. Here.
London's metal trees have been stoking controversy since they first started springing up in and around the downtown core a few years back. Every once in a while, the local paper will publish a letter to the editor - I know, so quaint - from a reader who bemoans the fact that we've spent money on metal trees and not the natural kind. Some folks just can't let it go, I guess.

I was heading home from a meeting one dull summer's afternoon when this pink one insinuated itself into my head (here's a red one for comparison.) The rust was somewhat jarring: didn't they rust-proof these things when they were first installed? Did the sculptor know? Did he provide a warranty?

Probably not. And as I took in the odd spectacle of a rust-flecked pink tree, I thought about the steel from which it was made, and how a sad mixture of pink and rust was as far from the steely-grey stereotype as we could possibly get. Maybe that was the sculptor's intention all along.

Your turn: It's been a while since we played the three-words game. Time to rectify that. What are the first three words that come to mind when you see this scene?

Friday, February 07, 2014

#TechSeven - Sochi sucks & Twitter swoons

It's been a nutty week in tech, and things show no sign of slowing down. Which is precisely the way I like it. Here's a rundown of the things I chatted about with CJAD 800 Montreal's Barry Morgan on our weekly tech segment earlier this afternoon:

ONE - Sochi, lousy hotel rooms, and social media

Gotta love how Vladimir Putin blows $51 billion on history's most expensive Olympics, cracks down on the gay community, stray dogs and anything else that could get in the way of his uber-expensive vanity project, and does everything in his power to put on a happy face for the world. And before the games even get underway, journalists give lie to it all by tweeting in real-time how bad the hotel rooms are, and how unprepared the host country seems to be despite spending all that money. Sure, it's a #FirstWorldProblem, but still.

You've got to love how a clever mix of technology and smart reporting can cut an autocratic, scandalously shirtless leader down to size. The emperor indeed has no clothes, and the rules of despotism are different in the age of social media.

TWO - Twitter almost stops growing

It was a bad week for the popular microblogging service. And if you're an investor who bought into the company when it went public in November, yesterday was a really bad day for you.

The company reported its first quarterly financial results as a publicly traded company, and while most of the numbers were really solid - $243 million in revenue, up 116% year-over-year and well ahead of analyst expectations. The company reported a net loss of $511 million as it invests heavily in marketing, growing its network and other activities unique to a fast-growing tech company. On an adjusted basis, though, it actually turned a small profit: $10 million. It also doubled the amount of money it makes - the so-called CPC, or cost-per-click - every time you click on an ad. Across the industry, EVERYONE is enduring falling CPCs, including Google. Yet Twitter doubles its performance: amazing stuff, but obviously not enough for some investors.

Why the problem? Subscribers. It says it now has 241 million monthly active users (MAUs). That's up only 3.8% over the previous quarter, and represents a significant slowdown in growth - the slowest growth since it began reporting this data. For comparison, it grew 10%, 7%, and 6% in the previous quarters, so trend is somewhat ominous.

If Twitter doesn't grow, investors get nervous that it has no future. Facebook is 5 times as large (1.23 billion MAUs), and if Twitter sputters at 241 million, Houston has a very big long-term problem. CEO Dick Costolo said Twitter needs to become easier to use so it won't just appeal to the techno-savvy users who "get" what it's all about. It needs to become as accessible as Facebook so that folks like my father-in-law don't just sign up for it, give it a half-hearted try and then give up because it doesn't make sense to them. It needs to become a mainstream tool, so expect some major changes in how it works - both on the web and in its mobile apps - over the next few months.

LinkedIn, the social media site that caters to professionals looking to improve their network and career prospects, also had a bad week, as slowing sales and flattening user growth similarly sent investors running for the exits. Makes me wonder if investors will ever be happy. At some point, every company runs up against a maturing market, and the way we value companies in the social media age may need a bit of a re-think.

THREE - Montreal docs call for tech solution to cell phone use at the wheel 

Dr. Barry Pless is professor emeritus of pediatrics and epidemiology at McGill University. He and his son, Dr. Charles Pless, co-authored an editorial this week in the British Medical Journal that says the risks of distracted driving are tremendously high, and the time is now to use technology to solve it. While the research is conflicting - some studies say the risks are tremendously high and a majority of accidents are now attributed to use of mobile devices while driving, while other research is inconclusive - the Montreal doctors say distracted driving laws aren't working because most drivers figure they simply won't get caught, and we can't afford to wait years for the researchers to duke it out.

Some solutions they call for include:
  • Software that prevents drivers from texting while at the wheel - and configured as a factory default
  • Mobile phone pull-out or rest areas that have free Wi-Fi access - a great way to get drivers off the road if they must send texts or chat on the phone
  • Auto-reply messages that tell callers the device owner is currently driving
  • Signal jammers and other sensors that block cellphone reception in a vehicle. On that last point, we've seen some demonstration units that allow passengers to use their mobile devices, and they're so sensitive and context-aware that they apply ONLY to the driver's phone while he/she is at the wheel.
  • Given the pervasiveness of texting at the wheel - on my own commute, it's almost a universal reality, with drivers on all sides of me at red lights tilting their heads down and fiddling with their phones - I can't underscore enough how much these two docs need to be heard.
FOUR - Neknomination - another social media viral scourge for parents to worry about

It's the latest online rage, it's sweeping Facebook, and it's already killed two college students in the UK. It's called Neknomination, and it involves usually college- or university-age students videotaping themselves engaged in some kind of extreme binge-drinking, then posting it to Facebook with the #Neknomination hashtag. They then nominate (hence the name) someone else to do the same, which only contributes to its viral popularity.

Neknomination started in Australia and has since gone global. It isn't the first deadly viral scourge, and it won't be the last. But yet again parents are being reminded how important it is for them to help explain to their kids - of any age - the differences between appropriate and inappropriate online behaviours, and the consequences of crossing over the line.

FIVE - NIMBY - no cell towers here

Industry Minister James Moore made an announcement early this week that could change the look of our urban/suburban landscape. It has to do with cell phone towers. We hate them because they look hideous, but we're the first ones to complain to our wireless carriers when we have lousy service. If you're a carrier, it's a bit of a no-win situation.

Here's the deal: the carriers up until now have had to get regulatory approval from municipalities for any cell tower they wanted built. But there was a loophole: they could build anything as long as it was less than 15 metres in height. So, surprise surprise, they built lots of towers that were just under the height limit.

Now, that loophole is closing: ALL towers will require municipal consultation before they're built. Companies will also have to build them within three years of receiving approval: no more sitting on an approved plot, waiting for a community to spring up around it, then building a tower years later to the shock of residents who had no idea.

The process still isn't perfect: the towers can still be built without direct approval from residents (the rules only say the carriers must consult), but at least the process is more transparent for you and me, and we won't be surprised anymore when a tower goes up right behind the local pharmacy.

SIX - Can Apple's Siri spy on you?

A listener emailed in a question about Apple's Siri after seeing a report that said Apple records your activity and then stores it for five years. The listener wanted to know if I was surprised.

Um, no. Siri is just like any other online search service - like Google - in that it holds onto pretty much your entire history of activity and sticks it in a big database. The official reason is that this information is used to improve the service for you and everyone else. Unofficially, we'd be naive to assume that this couldn't be used for something else. The ongoing controversy over the NSA's overreaching should be a siren call to all of us.

Sure, we could toss all our mobile devices and go live in a cave, but something tells me that outside of the Taliban, that isn't much of an option for us. Siri-ans beware.



Google gives Putin the virtual finger

I'm a fan of Google. While its "Do no evil" mantra may strain a little under the pressures of becoming a globally-dominant player in web services, mobile and social media, there's enough tech era goodness in its culture that it's easy to smile when you think of the brand.

So it was with an ear-to-ear grin that I first loaded up the company's iconic search engine this morning, and was greeted by this:

To reinforce the point, Google included this quote, lifted right from the Olympic Charter:
"The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play." –Olympic Charter
The Sochi games have raised eyebrows for all the wrong reasons. From their estimated all-time-record $51 billion price tag to the brutal crackdown on gay rights, everything about these games feels like it must have felt in 1936 in Berlin.

It's nice to see a tech company use its world-spanning platform to send a message to Mr. Putin and, perhaps, to the Olympic movement itself. This may be "just" a Google doodle, one of many that the company routinely posts to mark major milestone events. But I'll argue this may be Google's most significant doodle ever. And I'd be remiss if I let it go without saying something.

Indeed, maybe it's time for the IOC and its cronies to re-evaluate the way they choose host countries. Indeed, maybe it's time to re-evaluate the Olympic movement itself.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

On avoiding normal

"Normal is not something to aspire to, it's something to get away from."
Jodie Foster

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Facebook's 10th birthday: Why you should care

Ten years ago today, a little website known as thefacebook.com went live at Harvard University. Mark Zuckerberg, a then-unknown student, wanted to streamline how students connected with each other, and in doing so managed to turn the big bad Internet into something a lot more personal. Before long, thefacebook.com lost the the and stretched beyond the world of academia. From there, it was pretty much a straight shot to the top of the social media heap.

As I reflect on the last decade, it becomes clear that Facebook more than any service carved out the space now known as social media. Yes, MySpace beat it to market by a few months, but Facebook's edge lay in both its architecture - highly conducive to discovering new network members, then interacting with them richly - and an organizational culture that valued adaptability above everything else.

Indeed, the Facebook in use today is almost unrecognizable compared to what was in use when most of us first signed on. And that template has cleared the way for services like Twitter and others.

It's been a busy day. I wrote this article for Yahoo! Canada Finance:
Facebook at 10: At a social media crossroads
And this piece for TheLoop.ca
Facebook at 10: Why I both love AND hate it
(For the record, it's mostly love, as it's a critical tool for the work I do.)

Beyond the writing, I've spoken with - or am scheduled to speak with - a bunch of neat folks, including
  • Andrew Carter on CJAD 800 Montreal
  • Jacqueline Milczarek on CTV News Channel
  • Richard Cloutier on CJOB 680 Winnipeg
  • Stephen Ledrew on CP24 television in Toronto
  • Mike Stubbs on 1290 CJBK London
  • Bob Steele on CBC Radio Windsor
  • Angela Kokott on NewsTalk 770 Calgary
This story, in particular, reminds me of why I enjoy covering the tech space as much as I do. It's quite the experience to take a long view on something that, in a few short years, has revolutionized how we interact with technology, and how we lead our lives. Glitches aside, it's a neat place to be.

But wait, there's more: If you've got a Facebook account, click this link:
https://www.facebook.com/lookback
Facebook's put together a bit of a birthday surprise just for you.


Monday, February 03, 2014

Thematic Photographic 280 - Made of Steel

Hold on tight
London, ON
August 2013
When you get right down to it, steel can be one heck of a compelling photographic subject. It can be shaped into so many forms that it might be essentially unrecognizable. Or it could be so recognizable that it's up to the photographer to find an interesting way to tell its story.

Either way, I could shoot this stuff all day. And for the next week, we're all going to have that chance.

Your turn: Take a picture of something that evokes this week's theme, made of steel. Remember: There are no rights and wrongs, as this is a creative process. The wilder the better. Post the pic to your blog or website, then leave a comment here letting everyone know where to find it. Visit other participants to share in the fun, and feel free to post more than once through the week. Use the #ThematicPhotographic hashtag in Twitter, and head here if you'd like more info on how Thematic works. Enjoy!

Reach for the sky

Grab on. Don't let go.
London, ON
April 2012
Thematic. Threesies. Here.
The other day I had to drive by the park where our kids used to play. As it's the middle of winter, the playground equipment was largely covered with snow, unused and ignored during its long winter hibernation.

Soon enough winter will be over (come on, Groundhog Day groundhogs, please cut us some slack) and this now-cold, quiet place will once again fill with the seemingly endless soundscape of screaming kids.

I admit I miss being here. Our kids still come here occasionally when they're looking for something different to do. They know they're a bit too old for it, but I think they miss the innocence of the place just as much as I do. When you could swing for hours without a care in the world. Or grab onto the monkey bars and pretend you were launching yourself to the sky, to a place where you were taller than your mom, where the horizon seemed to stretch forever.

Your turn: Now that you're an adult, where do you play?

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman dead

The Wall Street Journal and New York Post are both reporting that Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has been found dead in his New York City apartment.

I've never been one to subscribe to the cult of celebrity, but I find it beyond tragic when folks become superstars, only to fall victim to the excesses of living a life in a goldfish bowl. Few of us can imagine what it must be like to be Right There, but it nevertheless strikes me as beyond tragic that so many who burn so brightly end up consumed by the process.

It doesn't have to be this way, yet for some reason, for some people, that's exactly how the tragic story plays out.

He was 46. Too soon.

Is Best Buy dead?

When I told friends on Friday I had been working on an article about Best Buy Canada's latest round of layoffs - they announced they were turfing another 950 employees almost a year to the day after they announced they were blowing off 900 staff and shuttering 15 stores - I ignited quite the firestorm of feedback.

I heard stories of roaming aisle after aisle with nary a salesperson to be found, of finding an actual salesperson, only to have him turn tail and run the other way, of finally catching up with someone, only to realize he couldn't answer questions about his own shoe size let alone the tablet that brought them to the store in the first place. I heard similar experiences of questionable sales practices, non-existent after-sales service and an overall retail experience that made a post-shopping 45-minute hot shower virtually mandatory.

So there wasn't too much sympathy among my friends.

I even heard from a reader who has spent most of his career in consumer electronics, and summarized the zeitgeist rather nicely:
"I am not sure who is worse BestBuy or FutureShop. Whilst BestBuy don’t use the commission sales method vis-√†-vis FutureShop, they both suffer catastrophically from under trained, incompetent and often rude 'sales associates'. If you haven’t done your homework before going in, you are at their mercy and will invariably be pushed to buy the most expensive product."
Yup, I can see where he's coming from.

I wrote this piece for Yahoo Canada, Best Buy layoffs won't stop slide, and, yes, it didn't take long after the piece went live for me to get a slew of email from readers. Some of them were supportive, while others were kinda nasty. The nasty ones were, big surprise, sent anonymously, using throwaway web addresses. So predictable.

(The good news? The article has attracted 119 comments - and counting. Looks like it touched more than a few nerves. Good.)

I also received a rather challenging email from the Best Buy folks, and from the looks of it they were none too pleased. Then again, the truth always seems to hurt more when you refuse to hear it.

Your turn: Big box stores. Yes or no? Why/why not?

Saturday, February 01, 2014

On seeking laughter

"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter."
e.e. cummings
Indeed. When did you last laugh? What made you laugh?