Sunday, January 31, 2016

On picking your battles

"You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks."
Winston Churchill
The first thing that hits me as I absorb these rather timeless words is not all barking dogs merit stones in return. Some, like Frasier the Wonderdog, simply want to say hello, and tragically happen to sound endlessly vicious in the process. Look beyond the big, scary bark and you may be pleasantly surprised at the sweetness behind it.

Second, Churchill nails the there-are-only-so-many-hours-in-the-day thing. The world makes endless demands on us, and doing the polite thing and responding to them all is a recipe for burnout. Do what you can, as well as you can, and leave the rest behind. Over time, it becomes plainly apparent which dogs deserve a cuddle in return, and which ones can be left baying endlessly by the side of the road.

Your turn: If you could understand a dog's bark, what would he/she be saying?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Challenger - 30 years on

Hard to believe today is the 30th anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Thanks to the slow march of history, we all know the orbiter, OV-099, on its tenth mission and the 25th flight of the program - was torn apart by aerodynamic stresses after a leak in the o-ring joining sections of the right-hand solid rocket booster (SRB) burned through the side of the rocket and, eventually, into the side of the adjacent external tank. The tank failed 73 seconds after launch, and the ensuing accident destroyed the vehicle and killed the seven astronauts aboard, including teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe.

Challenger's 10th mission, STS-51L, ended in a puff of smoke high in the crystalline-blue sky, followed by a sickening plunge into the Atlantic Ocean while a shocked nation tried to make sense of it all.

But on the day of, we knew nothing about the mechanical reason for an accident that seemed beyond the realm of believability. All we knew at the time was the horrifying reality that the most sophisticated flying machine ever built had self-destructed in front of a global audience, that a technology sold to the government and the public as something that would make spaceflight routine was anything but.

Since I view pretty much everything through the lens of technology, I see January 28, 1986 as the day our unmitigated belief in the perfection of tech was irrevocably shattered, as the investigation into the Challenger disaster uncovered a creaky organizational culture that chose to ignore growing concerns from engineers.

The long-story-short version is burn-through of the o-rings was a known issue. Engineers from Morton Thiokol, the company that designed and built the SRBs, wrote about the risks in a 1970 report as the Space Transportation System was being designed, and multiple flights - including STS-2, the program's second mission - exhibited worrisome erosion of the o-ring joint due to burn-through. NASA blindly green-lit launch after launch, figuring every successful flight validated the safety of the design. The reality was they were playing with fire, and it was only a matter of time before their luck ran out.

Morton Thiokol engineers protested NASA's decision to launch on that bitterly cold January morning. The temperatures were well below the rated design of the o-rings, and NASA, faced with growing pressure to adhere to an absolutely unrealistic flight rate, ignored their warnings. The super-cold o-ring failed to seat properly at launch, and the telltale sign of black smoke that puffed out from the booster milliseconds after ignition foreshadowed the disaster to come.

While the return-to-flight program resulted in a complete redesign of the troublesome o-rings and a top-to-bottom rethink of NASA's organizational culture, the space agency never fully purged the rot from its ranks. Challenger's lessons were not heeded, and Columbia's crew paid the same ultimate price on February 1, 2003 when their orbiter, OV-101, flying the STS-107 mission, came apart on re-entry high over Texas. The cause, then as now, a faulty organizational culture that systematically minimized the risks of foam shedding from the shuttle's external tank, and diverted engineers' concerns for mission after mission until, tragically, it was too late.

Five-and-a-half years after the last flight of the shuttle, NASA is building a new platform for deep space missions. The monster Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, topped by the Orion capsule, will take humans further into space than they've ever gone before. At the same time, SpaceX and Boeing are developing human-rated space vehicles - Crew Dragon and the CST-100 Starliner, respectively - that are scheduled for their initial test flights within the next couple of years.

One hopes the lessons of history don't fall on deaf ears, and the pressure to fly doesn't compromise safety to the point that careers are ended and lives are destroyed. To repeat the errors of the past would sully the memory of those who gave their lives in the pursuit of exploration and the advancement of human potential.

Sometimes, rocket science isn't as much about the rockets as it is the people who design, build and fly them.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

It's #BellLetsTalk Day: Talking is good. Doing is better

Mental illness affects one in five Canadians - meaning there's a reasonable chance it's already touched either you, a family member, or a friend.

By 2020, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation projects depression will be the world's #1 cause of disability. Here in Canada, the Canadian Medical Association estimates mental illness accounts for 15% of all health care costs - or $50 billion every year. It is also a driver of poverty: Two-thirds of Canada's homeless have experienced mental illness, and someone who suffers from mental illness will live 10 years less than the average Canadian.

The numbers are frightening. And you'd think we'd be doing more to address this. Yet mental illness isn't like cancer or a broken leg. It isn't the kind of disease that gets countless people wearing pink ribbons or signing casts. It's the one illness no one wants to discuss for fear of being stigmatized, marginalized, left behind. Don't tell your boss, the thinking goes, because in this age of precarious job prospects and mass layoffs, it could get you fired. Or it could keep you from being hired in the first place.

So it's no surprise that, according to the CMA, two-thirds of mental health sufferers do so in silence. The Canadian Mental Health Association CMHA says that stigma not only keeps people from seeking and receiving treatment, but it's also a barrier to broader acceptance within the community. Rock, meet hard place.

Bell is holding its 6th annual Bell Let's Talk Day today, and in fairly short order it's become one of this country's highest-profile initiatives to finally break the silence that surrounds mental illness. It raises money - every time a subscriber makes a mobile or long distance call or sends a text, the company will donate 5 cents to mental health initiatives, while it'll make the same donation whenever anyone tweets or posts to Facebook using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag - but it also raises awareness.

All well and good. And awareness is the first step toward reducing the cost - to individuals, to those who love them, to colleagues and society at-large - and ensuring those who need help do, in fact, receive it in the same way they would if they were suffering from any other disease.

But we can't simply talk. We must act. We must change the way we view others, the way we deal with those who may be suffering in silence. We must be kinder and more empathetic. We must be better at recognizing the signs and positioning ourselves to offer genuine help.

One day each year to raise national awareness and funds is an amazing, inspiring and important start. But the game won't be over until this becomes part of our everyday reality, where we all run toward those who suffer, and not away from them. And until those who suffer feel comfortable enough to share their stories without fear of losing even more than they already have.

Your turn: To participate, share a tweet or Facebook post using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. If you're a Bell subscriber, make a call on your mobile phone or call someone long distance. And don't be afraid to be that person who recognizes the signs. Just be there. Because sooner or later, mental illness touches us all.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Thematic Photographic 365 - Lens

Framed in red
December 2014
Deerfield Beach, FL
We all see the world through some kind of lens. Whether it's a pair of eyeglasses or sunglasses perched on our nose, a camera cradled in our hands, or something less tangible, the world isn't as we see it until we view it through something.

That something, that lens, is this week's Thematic theme. I look forward to seeing how you interpret it and make it your own.

Your turn: Take a photo that evokes this week's theme - lens - then share it on your blog, website, Facebook page or wherever else you hang your hat online. Leave a comment here letting folks know where to find it. For bonus points*, tweet it using the #ThematicPhotographic hashtag. For more details on how Thematic works, click here.

* Um, we don't actually give out bonuses, or points, or anything remotely akin to prizes. But the rewards of a photographic life are priceless, right?

Here's why you must share your passwords before you die

You've got to feel for Peggy Bush. The 72-year-old Victoria, B.C. resident lost her husband, David, to lung cancer last August. The couple owned an iPad, and she continued to use it after his death to play games.

She ran into problems after the app stopped working, and she tried to reinstall it. While she knew the four-digit PIN used to unlock the device, she was unable to log into her late husband's Apple ID - and you need the Apple ID in order to install or update software on the tablet. Without it, you've got a very expensive doorstopper.

Apple asked for a death certificate, along with her late husband's will - in which he left everything to her. After she provided these to the company, Apple balked, and insisted she also provide a court order before they'd let her into the account.

While Apple's terms of use are pretty clear - users "agree that your Account is non-transferable and that any rights to your Apple ID or Content within your Account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate your Account may be terminated and all Content within your Account deleted" - the company has granted access to surviving family members in past cases, including relatives of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq in 2004 who won a court case to regain access to his account.

After the issue spilled into mainstream and social media last week, Apple backed down and allowed her to reset the password and access the account - no court order required.

The bottom line: The issue of so-called "digital legacy" (what happens to our digital accounts after we die) is only going to become more mainstream as we shift more of our lives online. Facebook was ahead of the curve when it instituted "Memorialized" accounts last year, along with specific rules and processes for family members/loved ones to follow in case someone died without leaving express instructions in advance. Those kinds of frameworks would have saved folks like Peggy Bush a lot of trouble and heartache.

But framework or no framework, this case serves as a reminder to us all that it's high time we have certain conversations with our loved ones about how our digital assets are to be handled after we're gone. No one ever wants to talk about stuff like this, but we need to, now more than ever.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Where the rubber hits the road

Don't tread on me
London, ON
January 2016
Thematic. Tires. Here.
The photographic process starts long before you pick up a camera and point it in the right direction. Like digestion, it begins when your brain begins to churn the possibilities.

And those possibilities started to form before I even made it outside on my way home from the office last night. I had to be somewhere in negative time, so I couldn't linger over the composition. The late afternoon light was already fading, made worse by the thick cloud cover overhead. I gave myself one minute to set up, shoot, and get on my way.

So as I strolled across the parking lot toward my very filthy vehicle, my mind raced as it quietly searched for something worthy of attention on this very unspectacular day. And when it bore in on my tire tread, I knew this was it. With pre-set guidance re. what I was looking for and how I wanted to capture it, I'm pretty sure I was done composing and shooting in less than half that time.

In the end, it isn't a sunset over a fiery-red, reflective ocean. Nor is it an X Games action shot. It'll never grace a magazine cover (they still exist?) or a design website. But even slightly off-normal views of very normal things during an otherwise normal moment in a similarly normal place can have their own charms.

Each and every day, this uber-dirty patch of rubber partners with three other uber-dirty patches of rubber to keep me from being flung into a ditch or into the path of an oncoming ice cream truck. The least I could do was give it its moment in the somewhat muted sun.

Your turn: A time when you captured a normal object or scene in an abnormal way. Aaaaaaaaand...go!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

On play

"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Twitter was down. The world did not end.

I woke up early this morning to news that Twitter had experienced an overnight service outage. From about 3:20 a.m. until just around 6am Eastern, users who tried to access the service via its website, mobile website and app were either unable to do so, or things took so long to respond that it was useless to even try.

This happened while most folks in North American slept, so the fact that there aren't mushroom clouds on the horizon is strictly a matter of timing. Among the various social media platforms out there - including Facebook, Instagram and even Pinterest - Twitter is often seen as the one that everyone turns to when big news is happening. Because of the way it's built, it works nicely as what I like to call the Internet's early warning system.

So when that early warning system goes dark, where does everybody go?  They take to Facebook and any other tool they can get their hands on. And they complain. Because nothing fixes an outage like a good whine.

The service is slowly coming back up: It'll load for most people, but posting new Tweets is a bit hit-and-miss. I guess the data centres need some tea. Which gives us all time to reflect. Here are some things to keep in mind the next time Twitter - or some other important-to-you social media or message service - goes down:
  1. You don't pay for the service. So no one owes it to you.
  2. There are many other tools and services out there. As you would do in a traffic-jammed commute, simply take another road.
  3. This is not a tragedy. Walk the floor of any ER or cancer ward, or take an all-expenses-paid tour of Mosul or the beaches of Lesbos for a reality check on how the word should be defined. This, OTOH, is a simple inconvenience.
  4. There was life before Twitter. Once upon a time, not so long ago, we all lived rather nicely without any kind of social media. Amazing, isn't it?
  5. Silence can be golden. Sometimes, all it takes to snap us back into some kind of balanced perspective, is a little time away from the technologies that make it so easy to lose that balanced perspective. Maybe being temporarily unable to share every last snippet of your life in selfie-lensed grandeur is actually good for the soul.
Your turn: Do you even care when Twitter, Facebook et al go down?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Thematic Photographic 364 - Tires

Retro commuter
Toronto, ON
August 2015
I had to add some air to my car's tires the other night, and as I crouched in the dimly lit, never-been-cleaned far corner of a local service station late on a bone-chilling evening and waited for the creaky old compressor to do its thing, I realized how rarely I take pictures of the rubber that hits the road.

Since their contact patches make the difference between sticking to the road and flying off of it, they may very well be the most important parts of any vehicle. But as I balanced in the shadows of my car, I wondered why I don't shoot scenes like this more often. It might seem like it isn't worthy of attention, but I come from a place where everything is worthy, and creativity revolves around making ordinary things seem extraordinary.

Hence this week's theme, tires.

Your turn: Take a picture of a tire or tires, then share it on 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.

On different strokes...

"The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases."
Carl Jung

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The one thing you must know before upgrading your phone's operating system

Upgrades to mobile phone operating systems - Apple's iOS, Google's Android, etc. - often promise exciting new features on existing hardware. And they're free, so millions of users dive in as soon as the downloads become available.

We all love the sound of free, after all, don't we?

The reality is often anything but pleasant, as older, weaker hardware frequently bogs down under the weight of the new software. And now, a $5 million class action lawsuit against Apple says it knowingly crippled users of its older iPhone 4S models with the most recent iOS9 upgrade.

The lawsuit, launched by Chaim Lerman, accuses Apple of engaging in deceptive trade practices and false advertisement by claiming iOS 9 was compatible with older phones, including the iPhone 4S.

Unfortunately for iPhone 4S owners, reality was a lot crappier: After they upgraded, their phones froze, crashed and generally failed to perform properly. The lawsuit says Apple knew this would happen, but still marketed the OS as being better - faster, more feature-filled - on older hardware.

To make a bad situation worse, once you upgrade, you can't downgrade. So owners were stuck: Either keep using their now-crippled devices or trek to the Apple Store and buy a new one.

Will this have much of an impact? Likely not. It's a small dollar amount for the world's most valuable tech company, and a similar lawsuit a few years ago went nowhere,

But it serves as fair warning to smartphone (and, let's be realistic, tablet) owners: The next time a new free operating system upgrade becomes available, think twice about upgrading if your device is more than a couple of years old.

You know, that old flip phone is looking better and better with each passing day.

On loving what you do

"The only way to do great work is to love what you do."
Steve Jobs

Which begs the obvious two questions: What do you love to do, and why do you love it in the first place?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Touchscreens are about to get a radical upgrade

Within the space of about a decade, touchscreens have revolutionized how we interact with electronics all the way from smartphones and tablets to laptop and desktop computers and appliances and cars. Most vehicles sold today feature a touchscreen front and centre, which allows car manufacturers to get rid of the sea of buttons that once dominated the instrument panel.

That's both good and bad. Good because it simplifies things for carmakers - fewer buttons for designers and engineers to test, certify and fiddle with, and easier upgrades because all the features are in software. Bad because using a touchscreen while driving can be ridiculously frustrating. That's because conventional touchscreens lack the tactile feedback - i.e. feel-it-with-your-fingers - of a good old fashioned button. With a touchscreen, there's no hitting a button or activating a switch or slider by feel. You've got to use your eyes to confirm you're hitting the right spot on the otherwise flat, featureless surface. And if you're looking at your screen, you're not looking at the road. Which I'm pretty sure is lousy for safety.

But what if a touchscreen could replicate the touchy-feely world of those beloved old buttons and switches? The giant auto parts maker Bosch says it has the answer: A so-called next-generation "haptic" touchscreen that vibrates in a very precise manner to create the feeling of pressing a real button.

The screen is called Neosense, and unlike conventional haptic screens that simply vibrate to confirm a touch or a press, this one is far more precise. It vibrates so precisely and is tuned so carefully that when you run your finger over graphic images of buttons and actual features, you can actually feel them as buttons and features. You can even "feel" what it's like to activate sliders and other types of controls.

Similarly, you can brush your fingers over certain elements and feel them without actually activating them - meaning no more accidentally bumping the screen and pressing the wrong thing. When you mean to press on a virtual button, it feels like you've actually pressed a button.

The company is currently in talks with a number of major carmakers, and these trick new screens should start taking over from older-tech touchscreens over the next few years.

The possibilities are, to quote a cliche, endless. And it can't come a moment too soon to an industry so in love with tech for the sake of tech that it's forgotten why buttons, switches and sliders were so perfect from a user interface perspective, and what we lost when we allowed them to be almost completely replaced by something vastly inferior simply because it looked cool.

Your turn: Does your vehicle have a touchscreen? Are you a fan? Or not?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Welcome to my strangest-ever drive-to-work coincidence

The scene: I've just left the house and am driving alone in my car on my way to work. It's a snowy, grey, warm, wet and altogether miserable Canadian winter morning, and from somewhere behind my right shoulder, I can hear what sounds like a distant hiss.

I check my windows and, no, they're securely closed. But still the hiss persists. Fearing a partially closed rear door - the perils of having kids, I guess - I decide to pull into the next available parking lot so that I can check it out. I carefully make my way over and pull into a spot in a grocery store parking lot.

As I'm getting out of my car, I notice a minivan from a local school bus service pull in beside me. Out pops a smiling man, who quickly walks toward me, says, "Hi Carmi" and extends his hand.

I have no idea who he is, but he clearly knows me. As we shake hands, I don't say much beyond a similarly smiled, "Good morning" because I'm wondering if maybe I should know him.

Thankfully he starts talking and quickly explains how he's a regular listener to my weekly segments with Andy Oudman on CJBK, and he recognized me from TV and wanted to thank me for all I do.

He then introduced me to his wife, and explained how he uses technology to maintain an online ministry, and he likes how I keep things simple.

We chatted for a bit before we had to get back to the business of the day. And as it turns out, I'm glad I stopped because my passenger-side rear door was indeed halfway between open and closed. So thank you, Nagules, for a) reminding me that there's still plenty of random kindness in the world and b) saving me from a possibly flung-open door on a slushy London commute.

As I got back on the road and pointed myself toward the office, I wondered about the encounter, and whether I was somehow supposed to stop in that place at that time, and if somehow the universe wanted me to connect with a very kind member of our London listener community.

I, of course, have no idea how or why coincidences like this happen. I'm just glad that they do, because it's never a bad thing to be reminded of our impact on others. I'll be listening for more hisses from the back of my car more often, because you just never know where they'll take you.

Your turn: Ever have a coincidence happen to you that you simply can't explain?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

On pondering the end of the world

"The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything."
Albert Einstein

Monday, January 11, 2016

Thematic Photographic 363 - Bare

Life, interrupted
London, ON
August 2015
You sort of feel bad for this forgotten stretch of underbrush beside one of London's multi-use pathways, because even in the middle of August, on a humid, hazy late summer day that was otherwise choked with teeming urban-forest life, this forlorn pile of branches was completely devoid of leaves.

On the surface, it's sad. You wonder if the leaves will ever return, or if you're looking at the lifeless remnants of something that once was and likely will never be again. Yes, it's "just" some wild-growth brush, and we don't grieve over lost plant life in the same way we mourn an individual or even a pet. But a stripped-bare scene like this still gives me pause. Maybe we all need more excuses to pause and think. Maybe there's a lesson in the stripped-bare beauty.

Your turn: Shoot something that evokes this week's theme, bare. Post the result - or results - to your blog or website, then leave a comment here letting folks know where to find it. Visit other participants through the week to share the photographic joy, and feel free to invite a friend along for the ride. For more info on how Thematic works, click here. Thanks again for making this such a highlight. Enjoy...

Ground Control to Major Tom

It seemed more than a little surreal to wake to news this morning that David Bowie had died from cancer at the age of 69. I know I betray my naivete here, but a part of us often wishes the artistic icons we grew up with would somehow always be there.

But until medical science figures out another way, mortality affects us all, even the rich, the famous and the groundbreaking. And while I don't tend to pay much attention to celebrity culture, it's that last one - groundbreaking - that seemingly compels me to write about Mr. Bowie today. That's because he wasn't a celebrity in the conventional sense of the word. Sure, he topped the charts and logged more than his fair share of headlines for a somewhat bigger-than-life lifestyle. But there was so much more to his story.

Unlike so many "artists" who top the charts and grab headlines today, he was the real deal, a modern-day Renaissance Man whose foundation was always the art. He played, he wrote, he produced, he influenced. He didn't follow the Zeitgeist of the day. He set it. And when the winds of change blew - indeed, before they blew - he set a new standard for others to follow.

You don't have to love - or even like - one of his songs to appreciate the broader impact his work had on our cultural landscape. And anyone who picks up a musical instrument, a paintbrush, a pen or any other artistic implement owes Mr. Bowie a thank you or two for never settling for whatever everyone else was doing, for being an artist first, for never forgetting the value of substantive contributions to the craft, and for always having the courage to sing in his own voice.

Your turn: Do you have a Bowie memory?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

On making the attempt

"Defeat is not the worst of failures.
Not to have tried is the true failure."

George Edward Woodberry
So, please, try. Isn't that why we're all here?

Heads up: New-and-improved Wi-Fi is on the way

For years, Bluetooth has been the technology of choice for low-power, short-range (i.e. a few feet) wireless communications, while Wi-Fi has been the preferred wireless technology for connecting devices within your home or office.

Well, thanks to the Internet of Things, which will require lots and lots of wireless connections between small-ish appliances, outlets and wearables, a new better-than-Bluetooth standard is required.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, the global body which is responsible for determining connectivity standards that ensure everything can talk to everything else, has approved something it calls 802.11 HaLow (pronounced like "halo" - such cleverness! The technology, which is an extension to the upcoming 802.11ah standard, was announced at last week's CES in Las Vegas.

Unlike current Wi-Fi devices that operate in the 2.4Ghz and 5GHz bands, HaLow devices will use the 900MHz band. The benefit: much lower power consumption, double the range, and it works far better through walls and other obstacles.

Why not use existing Wi-Fi? Because the current standards (b, g, n, ac, et al) would burn the battery on always-on, sensor-rich, always-connected devices like intelligent door locks, smart bulbs and appliances. The group says HaLow "will enable a variety of new power-efficient use cases in the smart home, connected car ... as well as industrial, retail, agriculture and smart city environments."

It's a direct competitor to low-power versions of Bluetooth, so expect a bit of a VHS vs. Beta-like battle for inclusion on your next fitness tracker wristband or smart door lock.

Either way, expect new devices sporting the updated standard to hit the market in 2018. Which gives us three years to buy a new router and adjust to the realities of wireless sports bras, connected coffee mugs and intelligent toasters. I'm not sure I'm ready for my toaster to be intelligent, but perhaps that's an issue for another day.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Death by iPad: Watch out for In-app purchases

Like many 7-year-olds in the U.K - and presumably elsewhere - Faisall Shugaa, likes to play games on his dad's iPad. Unlike most kids his age, he ran up an almost-$6,000 bill over five days in December playing the Jurassic World game.

All together now: Ruh roh!

While the game itself is free, it uses in-app purchases to allow players to upgrade their characters and buy virtual goods. Before his father knew what had happened, there was a huge bill waiting for him on his credit card. He had provided the four-digit passcode to allow his son to use his device, and his son had also memorized his dad's Apple ID login information. Pretty precocious for a 7-year-old, don't you think?

The story has a happy ending: his father, Mohamed, complained to Apple, and they've refunded the money.

That aside, this is only the latest in a long line of similar stories. In-app purchases have long put parents' credit cards at risk when they hand their mobile devices over to their kids, and despite moves by Apple and Google to tighten things up a bit, we still have cases like this.

It's easy to blame the technology - and let's be clear, in-app purchases are the work of the devil, the Borg, and Donald Trump working in concert - but accountability ultimately lies with parents who increasingly see these devices as convenient babysitters. They naively ignore the risk of in-app purchases, and they fail to keep a lid on their kids' online activities. They can easily enable parental controls and limit connectivity, but many parents simply can't be bothered.

This is something to keep in mind as other free-to-play games like Clash of Clans, Boom Beach and Mobile Strike (starring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger blindly punching the daylights out of a smartphone screen) launch big budget marketing campaigns to get you to play. They make their money via in-app purchases, so the best bet is to not take the bait in the first place.

Online as in life, there's no such thing as free.

Is this the dumbest cop story ever?

Sometimes a tech-related story comes along that just makes you shake your head. This is one of them. Here's the lowdown:

A high-ranking police officer in Montreal attends a party over the holidays. In his unmarked cruiser parked on the street outside, he leaves a bag containing a bunch of stuff, including a USB flash drive containing detailed information - names, home addresses, the works - on undercover police officers and informants.

You know where this is headed, don't you? Of course you do!

Sometime overnight, someone breaks into the car and steals the bag. As you can imagine, the drive is gone. We can safely assume the data on it wasn't encrypted, and we can safely assume someone's copying it onto a Dark Web server as we speak.

It took this long for the story to come to light because I'm convinced the police force was mortified that it happened in the first place. Oh, the lawsuits that are going to fly from this one.

I spoke with my colleagues at CJAD Montreal and they filed this story. I may have used a profane word or two when discussing it on the phone, as there's no excuse for this, especially from a cop who really ought to know better.


Friday, January 08, 2016

Big Brother is watching you

The strange things TV people do
London, ON
January 2016
I admittedly lead a surreal life. Not perfect, or textbook, or even remotely conventional. But surreal.

For example, I often find myself staring down the barrel of a television camera. And as the technical director (on this night, it was Elvin) works his usual magic to make live interviews happen - framing, sound checks, color compensation, lighting, tending to my diva-esque needs, you name it - I often think about how to best capture what it's like to be on the other end of the screen.

It's tough to shoot into the camera because the set lighting is so bright. But sometimes I get lucky and I end up with a snippet, a quick pixel grab that tells the story of the last few minutes before we go live.

As you can see here, we tend to enjoy the moment. Which is entirely why I always look forward to the next interview almost as soon as this one is done. Big Brother-ish horsing around notwithstanding, I realize how lucky I am to sit in the chair.

Your turn: Do you get nervous when the spotlight is on? How do you make the jitters go away?

Note: This photo continues this week's Thematic blue theme. Feel free to share yours here. Yes, I know I'm stretching it with my baby blues. Thanks for indulging me.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

The sad case of the hoverboarding priest

More techie goodness from my geeky world. I talked about this on last week's Clicked In segment on CTV News Channel* and thought it would be fun to share here, as well:

Pity the hoverboard. Not only is it not a true hoverboard (unlike Marty McFly's board from Back to the Future II, it has wheels, and most definitely does not hover) but it's been getting a lot of negative publicity lately. Exploding batteries, airline bans, injuries and legal run-ins. It's ugly all around.

Now, the ultimate insult to injury. Over the holiday period, a priest in the Philippines decided to use a hoverboard during Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. To no one's surprise, the video of him cruising up and down the aisles of his church during the service went viral.

Unfortunately, Internet fame doesn't always mean a happy ending. His bosses, apparently, were not amused. The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Pablo, in a Facebook post, no less, ripped him a new one for using the hoverboard in what they call an inappropriate manner: 

Then they suspended him from his post to give him the time to reflect on his mistake. He's since apparently acknowledged the error of his ways, and promises it'll never happen again.

I'm guessing Google Glasses and prayer apps are also out of the question at this particular church. Which is something of a bummer, because innovative use of technology as an engagement tool could be an effective means of turning around sagging membership and boosting participation numbers. Maybe I'm too much of a religious heathen for my own good, but you'd think church leaders wrestling with falling attendance and shuttered buildings might want to rethink how they plan to appeal to the next generation of congregants, namely folks who were raised on smartphones, apps and, yes, hoverboards.

The key is balancing the tech with the traditional: Not always easy to do, as we can see here, but if I ever had the opportunity to meet him, I'd still high-five the priest for trying.

Your turn: Does a hoverboard - or an app, or a picoprojector or similar piece of technology - belong in a church, synagogue, mosque or other place or worship? Is tech disrespectful to religion, a critical marketing tool to drive future growth, or something in between?

* Every Sunday at 8:20pm Eastern, I chat about two or three of the most notable tech stories from the past week with Scott Laurie on CTV News Channel. If you're in Canada, hope you can tune in. If not, I'll post links to the video as they become available.

On hope

"Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark."
George Iles

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

On judging others

"Beware, so long as you live, of judging men by their outward appearance."
Jean de la Fontaine

Twitter prepares to remove its 140-character limit

Another day, another editorial note: I write lots of stuff. Analyses, mostly, as prep for my on-air work. I often call them talking points, and I typically share them with my producers when we're preparing for an upcoming interview. While nothing I do on radio or TV is scripted, by preparing overviews in writing, it helps me wrap my head around a topic, it gets the entire team on the same page, and it makes for what I think is a better interview.

At least I hope it does.

Over the weekend, I found myself reading over some of the talking point packages I've pulled together recently, and I realized they stand rather nicely on their own as somewhat nerdy-sounding blog entries. So in the interest of taking some of the research and analysis that I do day-to-day and making it more accessible, I'm going to share sharing more of these here, as well.

The first one is a closer look at Twitter's plans to remove its 140-character limit, which I wrote in advance of a CTV News Channel interview with Marcia MacMillan that aired this morning (video link here.) Looking forward to your feedback.

The issue
The influential tech website, Re/Code, published a report Tuesday that quoted multiple reliable sources as saying Twitter is working on a feature that will allow users to bypass the 140-character limit that has applied to tweets since the microblogging service’s launch in 2006.
The feature will reportedly go live before the end of Q1 2016.
This isn’t the first we’ve heard of this
Re/Code first reported on this last September. This week’s update narrows down the timeline and provides additional details on what to expect.
The rationale
While Twitter is widely considered to be the heartbeat of the Internet, the resource used by digerati to connect Right Now when major news is happening - or when they simply want to reach out to a broader audience - it has struggled to grow its audience beyond the core of tech-, media- and culture-savvy users.
In October, the company reported it had 320 million monthly active users (MAUs), up only 1% over the previous quarter. In contrast, Facebook has 1.55 billion MAUs and continues to grow at a consistent rate.
The impact
As concerns over sustained growth mount, investors have hammered the company’s shares, which continue to trade at historic lows - under $22 at close Monday, less than a third of its all-time high. In social media, growth is life, and a stagnant user base is a massive red flag. Like a rocket, it either accelerates rapidly or it risks crashing to Earth.
Coupled with stubbornly high costs - it costs a lot of money to run a global-scale real-time multiplatform utility - and challenging revenue and profit growth, the company doesn’t have the dollars to fund continued innovation in new/expanded services.
Twitter laid off 8% of its staff last year - its first ever - and it’s entirely likely there will be more bloodletting if things don’t improve.
What Twitter needs to do?
Unless it figures out how to spark renewed growth, the company is vulnerable to takeover or worse. Strategies for achieving this include radically altering the very nature of the service to enhance its appeal to a wider, more mainstream and less techie audience (i.e. figure out a way to get my mom to use it.)
Twitter’s abandonment rate - i.e. the number of users who have signed up, then bailed - is among the highest in the social media space. While loyal users “get it”, mostly everyone else does not. Like a powerful, stripped down sports car, it’s too difficult to explain in 30 seconds, and its real power isn’t immediately apparent to the casual user.
Beyond growth, Twitter needs to monetize, too
While Twitter certainly needs to kickstart user growth, it also needs to figure out how to make money from (monetize, in online parlance) the users it does have. Unfortunately, the nature of its service makes that difficult to do.
For users who want to go beyond the 140-character limit, they can include shortened links to websites, blog entries, photos, videos and other content. In virtually all cases, though, this content lives outside of Twitter’s playground. While Facebook keeps users firmly within its so-called walled garden, Twitter simply serves as something of a glorified switching station, redirecting traffic to all other parts of the Internet instead of keeping that traffic and user-attention for itself. It’s hard to make money when you’re pointing traffic elsewhere.
The reported change would allow Twitter to host more of this linked content within its own domain and app - which would give it a platform to turn all that internal traffic into revenue-generating activity. That activity is mainly ads, of course, but also includes big data/analytics - basically insight into user activity which would allow it to further tailor its services AND sell that knowledge to third party marketers, agencies, advertisers and others.
This Big Brother-like tracking - which Google and Facebook have raised to a high art - is easier to do when you own the entire playground.
What Twitter has been doing
The company removed the 140-character limit on direct messages (DM, or private person-to-person messages) last year. Now, DMs can be up to 10,000 characters. In comparison, Facebook Messenger’s messages are capped at 20,000 characters.
Jack Dorsey, founder and original CEO, returned to head the company last year, as well, in a move designed to reinforce investor’s faith in the struggling company. It hasn’t worked yet, and this week’s report is a sign that the company is preparing for more significant change.
Why is there a 140-character limit in the first place?
The tight cap was instituted as a way of allowing tweets to comfortably fit into the size of a standard SMS or text message (which is 160 characters. When Twitter was launched, its main delivery method was via text message, so aligning with that tight infrastructure made sense back then.
As Twitter became a full-fledged app and web service and moved away from its SMS-based roots, the 140-character limit stuck.
What are the potential risks of removing the 140-character limit?
Twitter’s very nature is light, agile and sparse. The character limit forces brevity and allows users to scroll through large volumes of tweets in virtually no time at all. You can cover a lot of ground by reading a tweet stream. It’s an architecture that works just as well on smartphones and other mobile devices as it does on a desktop or laptop computer.
Unlike a Facebook timeline or newsfeed, which is often cluttered with longer-form content, Twitter’s interface is efficient and easy to follow.
By eliminating the character limit, the company risks becoming a me-too platform by losing the lightness that made Twitter so appealing in the first place. The trick is to open things up for newbies to drive growth without ruining the power-user-like experience for the already-addicted. A tough balancing act indeed.
What’s the company saying?
In response to the Re/Code report, Dorsey tweeted late Tuesday using the very same trick that many users use to bypass the 140-character limit: A screenshot of a longer-form piece of writing.
He somewhat cryptically hinted that the company’s solution might involve something of an enhancement to this workaround: "We've spent a lot of time observing what people are doing on Twitter, and we see them taking screenshots of text and tweeting it. Instead, what if that text...was actually text? Text that could be searched. Text that could be highlighted. That's more utility and power."
The fact that Dorsey even commented in response to the report is notable, as last year’s initial report was met with silence (which is more typical in Silicon Valley.) It lends tremendous credence to the building belief that something big is about to happen.
The bottom line
Messing with the basic formula that made Twitter such a darling in the first place is a massive risk. If botched, it will ruin the very flavour of the service and turn off its loyal - if stagnant - user base. It may be a fifth the size of Facebook, but those 320 million users are pretty rabid about Twitter.
But the company is clearly at an organizational and fiscal crossroads, and business-as-usual simply can’t cut it anymore. It needs to swing for the fences by making fundamental changes to the way it works.
The DM change last year was just a tiny taste, a baby step on a path that will ultimately rewrite what Twitter is and how it works. It’s a risk the company can’t afford not to take.
Your turn: Is is technological heresy for Twitter to remove the character limit?

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

On holding on vs. letting go

"All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on."
Henry Ellis

Monday, January 04, 2016

Thematic Photographic 362 - Blue

Keep it clean, please
London, ON
September 2015
This week's Thematic theme, blue, gets us back to basics, to colors that often get ignored in the kaleidoscope of the day-to-day.

Only after I had shot this otherwise unremarkable garbage can did I notice how resonant the blue was, and how I had clearly been trained out of noticing it. As much as it was the geometry that drew me to this typically overlooked corner of downtown London, it's the color that keeps me coming back.

So for the next week, we're going to find the blue and celebrate it. Who's in?

Your turn: Thematic is our weekly photo sharing and learning extravaganza - just click here to learn more. First, either find or take a pic that evokes this week's theme, blue. Anything goes, really, and all you need to do is post it to your blog or website, then leave a comment here letting everyone know where to find it. Visit other participants to spread the photographic goodness. Repeat as often as you wish throughout the week. And, as always, please accept my thanks for making Thematic such a highlight. Enjoy!

On the origins of anger

"Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath."
Eckhart Tolle

Leave me alone, please

This is my spot now
London, ON
January 2016
At tuck-in time last night, Frasier decided to plop himself down half-on and half-off my pillow. I didn't have the heart to move him, so I took this picture instead.

I share it this morning for a number of reasons, primarily because it's a Monday, it's the first post-winter-break day back at work and school for many of us, and winter has finally decided to shows its face here in the Great White North. It's cold and grey outside, and the world needs a happy or two.

So here's a gratuitous picture of my dog. If you've got anything sitting in your archives or on your smartphone that you'd like to add to the photo-happiness party, go for it.

In the meantime, have a great start to the week.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

On the limitations of evil

"All through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always."
Mahatma Gandhi

Is Uber a ripoff?

Quick note: As CTV's Technology Analyst, I often talk and write about tech. As tech moves increasingly mainstream and touches more of us no matter how tech savvy we may be, I'm going to share more "work" stuff here on the blog. Hope you enjoy!

The Uber ride-sharing app/service has been getting more than its fair share of attention over the last few months, largely because it threatens to decimate the established - and highly regulated - taxi industry. It's a classic case of new vs. old, tech vs. traditional business, and like so many other tech-driven revolutions, it'll probably claim lots of victims before the war is finally over. Assuming it ever ends at all.

Headlines blared on New Year's Eve after some riders complained of huge bills to get home, including $1,100 in Edmonton, $650 in Montreal. The company uses something called "surge pricing" during periods of high demand, and as horrifying as it might seem to pay as much to drive across town as others might to fly across the country, there's a reason for it.

As part of my research, I pulled together a few key talking points that we should all keep in mind the next time we see another Uber-rips-off-poor-consumers headline. As with most tech-related themes, there's often a lot more to the story than initially meets the eye. Here's what you need to know:
  1. Surge pricing is a direct outgrowth of the supply-and-demand ethos that underpins the capitalist economy. Like it or hate it, it's more or less how our broader economy works.
  2. Uber has caught flack for seemingly scandalous surge pricing during times of crisis - like the Toronto floods in 2013, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and when a subway shutdown sent Toronto commuters into the streets last year.
  3. The operative term for most customers should always be "buyer beware", but as consumers have shown time and again when it comes to tech-based services, they fail to do their homework.
  4. Perversely, Uber isn't ripping anyone off: No one is forced to pay this rate, and anyone can walk away at any point in time - before the ride begins. 
  5. With that in mind, few of us read the terms of use after installing the app, and we often fail to ask questions when we get into the Uber driver's vehicle. Uber explains its Dynamic Pricing model rather clearly here.
  6. Eliminating surge pricing could very well have an impact on non-emergency-period pricing - in other words, Uber rides during "regular" periods could become more expensive to make up for the lost crisis-period revenue.
  7. That's because demand-based pricing models often use elevated rates during high-demand periods to balance off artificially low rates during lower-demand periods. Ever book a beachside hotel when it's snowing outside? Yes, just like that.
  8. With this in mind, no one complains when their Uber ride is significantly cheaper than an equivalent trip in a conventional taxi.
  9. If it wants to, Uber could very well curtail surge pricing to win some PR points. It has agreed to do so under some circumstances - i.e. during times of crisis - in New York.
  10. Uber has received a number of well-deserved black eyes for the rough-and-tumble way in which it operates. It is no stranger to controversy, and this latest round doesn't do its brand any favours. This is common with boundary-pushing companies like this that disrupt traditional businesses using technology.
  11. That said, it's ultimately up to customers to determine whether Uber lives or dies. Customers vote with their wallets, and if they feel they're being ripped off, they'll find an alternative.
  12. Right now, only Lyft offers much competition, and even then in relatively few cities/markets - and not in Canada, yet. That could change over time, however, and once again the markets will determine who wins and loses.
So as much as we like to rage on Uber for being the tech bad boy of the shared economy - and as gawd-awful the optics of surge pricing are - folks who pay three- and four-figure bills to get a ride have no one to blame but themselves.

The app makes it abundantly clear that surge pricing is in effect, and it's no one's fault but the consumer's for failing to read the screen before getting in the car and agreeing to the rate.

Eyes open, folks.

Your turn: Uber vs. taxi. Which side are you on?

One more thing: I spoke with Kevin Gallagher for a report he filed for last night's CTV National News. Video link is here. Story is here.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

It's just a game, people

There's a wave of sadness that's sweeping across Canada this afternoon. Our national junior men's team was eliminated by Finland at the World Junior Hockey Championship following a 6-5 loss in the quarter-final game.

It's the first time since 1998 that Canada has failed to make the semi-finals, and by virtue of the outcry on social media from coast to coast to coast, you'd think a national depression is about to set in.

So, yes, it's upsetting that we didn't win. Hockey may not be our national sport - that would be lacrosse - but it is seemingly our birthright, the one game that seamlessly ties us all together. It's a cultural touchstone, a rite of urban, suburban and rural passage, and a common language that reinforces our Canadian identity in ways so fundamental that mere words can't even come close to explaining it.

But at the same time - and this is what's probably going to get me egged in the grocery store parking lot this week - it's just a game. And when it's over, there always has to be a loser to go along with the winner. We don't always bring home the big prize - indeed there's no law, written or unwritten, that dictates that the championship is ours to begin with - and whether we do or don't shouldn't ultimately devalue the joy we take from the experience. Exhibit A for not needing to win: The Toronto Maple Leafs. Thank you.

So over the next few days, as the teen-something players begin their sad journeys home, consider that hockey remains a core foundation of Canadian values, and a single loss or victory won't change that. Also consider that we weren't driven from our homeland by religious zealots, didn't cross an angry sea in a leaky boat, weren't forced to line up for food hampers in the biting cold, woke up healthy, well-fed and literate enough to read, understand and appreciate this blog entry.

Count your lucky stars that our nation's junior team losing a hockey game is the worst thing that happened in your life today.

Friday, January 01, 2016

My beloved green mug

Start the day right
London, ON
December 2015
Thematic. Mugs. Here.
The green Canada AM mug in the photo here has an interesting history. I got it when I was in Toronto for an in-studio interview in September. Since most of my work with this program is normally done remotely from a studio in London, I jumped at the opportunity when I got called for an interview while I was already in Toronto for some training. One pre-dawn drive across the DVP and the 401 later, I found myself parking my CTV truck on some pretty hallowed ground.

It was, as you can imagine, an amazing experience that came with more than its fair share of pinch-me moments. Getting to work in the same halls and studios of folks you've idolized for ages was - and is - the kind of thing that makes me glad I'm still alive.

Vicky is responsible for juggling the never-ending array of guests and their needs. You'll probably never cross paths with a more gracious or organized person, and in those quiet moments where you're thinking you might be out of your league, she somehow manages to get you in the right zone. That includes the green mug you see here.

Because I'm an idiot and I notice these things, I admired the color and texture, and we both agreed someone deserved a raise for the guest-mug upgrade. She said I could take mine home if I wished, and I promised I'd return her gesture by sharing the mug's story online. I even tweeted it from the green room and here's Marci Ien's pic of me and Bev Thomson - with the mugs - chatting on-air.

Fast-forward to home later that day, and I was still pretty pleased with a) the in-studio experience and b) the neat keepsake. To this day, the mug gets smiles from everyone in the house every time I pull it out of the cupboard. My wife and kids know how ridiculously happy it makes me despite the fact that it's "just" a mug.

In the end, though, it isn't "just" a mug more than there's "just" an anything. This seemingly insignificant green cup is a reminder that good people are all around us, that small gestures can ripple over time and distance, and slowing down to appreciate the moment is always the right thing to do.

Your turn: What's your favorite mug? Why?