Tag Archives: Logic

Lost in the Flow of The Digital Word

my weekly column as part of the Loose Wire Service, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I wrote about the emergence of the digital book, and how, basically, we should get over our love affair with its physical ancestor and realize that, as with newspapers, rotary dial phones and reel-to-reel tape decks, the world has moved on. Digital rules, and ebooks now make more sense than papyrus.

Not everyone was happy. My bookseller friends won’t talk to me anymore, and don’t even mention my author ex-buddies. One person told me I was “brave” (I think he meant foolhardy) in saying something everyone else thought, but didn’t yet dare mention.

But the truth is that a lot of people have already moved on. Amazon is now selling more ebooks than hardbacks. It’s just about to bring out a Kindle that will sell for about $130. When it hits $100—by Christmas, probably—it’s hard not to imagine everyone getting one in their stocking.

By the end of next year, you’ll be more likely to see people reading on a digital device than a print version. Airlines will hand them out at the beginning of the flight instead of newspapers, along with a warning during the security demonstration not to steal them. (I was on a flight the other day that reminded people it was a serious offence to steal the lifejackets. What kind of people take planes and then steal the one thing standing between them and a watery grave?)

But what interests me is the change in the pattern of reading that this is already engendering. (The ereading, not the theft of flotation devices.) I go to Afghanistan quite a bit and it’s common to see Kindles and Sony eBook Digital Book Readers in the airport lounge. Of course, for these guys—most of them contractors, aid workers or soldiers—the ereader makes a lot of sense.

There are indeed booksellers in Kabul but it’s not exactly a city for relaxed browsing, and lugging in three or four months’ worth of reading isn’t ideal—especially when you can slot all that into one device that weighs less than a hardback, and to which you can download books when you feel like it.

Those who use Kindles and similar devices say that they read a lot more, and really enjoy it. I believe them. But there’s more. Amazon now offers applications for the iPhone (and the iPad) as well as the Android phone and the BlackBerry. Download that and you’re good to go. 

The first response of friends to the idea of reading on a smart phone is: “too small. Won’t work.”

Until, of course, they try it. Then opposition seems to melt away. One of my Kabul colleagues, no spring chicken, reads all his books on his iPhone 4. When the Android app came out a few weeks ago I tried it on my Google Nexus One.

And that’s when I realized how different digital books are.

Not just from normal books. But from other digital content.

I look at it like this: Written content is platform agnostic. It doesn’t care what it’s written/displayed on. We’ll read something on a toilet wall if it’s compelling enough (and who doesn’t want to learn about first-hand experience of Shazza’s relaxed favor-granting policies?)

We knew this already. (The fact that content doesn’t care about what it’s on, not how Shazza spends her discretionary time.) We knew that paper is a great technology for printing on, but we knew it wasn’t the only one. We also knew the size of the area upon which the text is printed doesn’t matter too much either. From big notice boards to cereal packets to postage-stamps, we’ll read anything.

So it should come as no surprise that reading on a smartphone is no biggie. The important thing is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined as flow: Do we lose ourselves in the reading? Do we tune out what is around us?

Surprisingly, we do. Usually, if I’m in a queue for anything I get antsy. I start comparing line lengths. I curse the people in front for being so slow, the guy behind me for sneezing all over my neck, the check-in staff for being so inept.

But then I whip out my phone and start reading a book and I’m lost. The shuffling, the sneezing, the incompetence are all forgotten, the noise reduced to a hum as I read away.

Now it’s not that I don’t read other stuff on my cellphone. I check my email, I read my Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds. But it’s not the same. A book is something to get absorbed in. And, if you’re enjoying the book, you will. That’s why we read them.

So it doesn’t really matter what the device is, so long as the content is good (and this is why talk of turning ebooks into interactive devices is hogwash. All-singing, all-dancing multimedia swipe and swoosh is not what flow is all about—and what books are all about.)

This is what differentiates book content from other kinds of digital content. We’re actually well primed to pick up the thread of reading from where we left off—how many times do you notice that you’re able to jump to the next unread paragraph of a book you put down the night before without any effort? Our brains are well-trained to jump back into the narrative threat a book offers.

There’s another thing at work here.

Previously we would only rarely have considered picking up a book to read for short bursts. But the cellphone naturally lends itself to that. You’ll see a few people in queues reading physical books, but the effort required is often a bit too much. It looks more defiantly bohemian than cozy. Not so with the phone, which is rarely far from our grasp.

This is one reason why friends report reading more with these devices. They may carve the process into smaller slices, but the flow remains intact.

And one more thing: The devices enable us to keep several books on the go at once. Just as we would listen to different music depending on our mood, time of day, etc, so with books we switch between fiction and non-fiction, humor, pathos, whatever. Only having a pile of books in your bag wasn’t quite as practical as having one by your bedside.

Now with ebooks that’s no longer an issue.

This is all very intriguing, and flies in the face of what we thought was happening to us in our digital new world: We thought attention spans were shrinking, that we weren’t reading as much as before, that we were slaves to our devices rather than the other way around.

I don’t believe it to be so. Sure, there are still phone zombies who don’t seem to be able to lift their gaze from their device, and respond to its call like a handmaiden to her mistress. But ebooks offer a different future: That we are able to conquer distraction with flow, absorb knowledge and wisdom in the most crowded, uncivilized of places, and, most importantly, enjoy the written word as much as our forebears did.

Praise be to Kindle. And the smart phone.

The Dangers of Faking It

(my weekly column, syndicated to newspapers)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A 40-ton whale jumped out of the water and crash-landed onto a sailboat the other day. The moment was caught on camera by a tourist, the whale suspended a few meters above the boat before it smashes into mast and deck, leaving behind a mass of barnacle and blubber.

Amazing stuff. So the first question from a TV interviewer to the survivors of this close encounter between man and mammal? “Was this picture Photoshopped?”

Sad, but I have to admit it was my first question too.

Photoshopping—the art of digitally manipulating a photo—has become so commonplace that it probably should be the first question we ask when we see a photo.

After all, it’s understood that every photo in every fashion magazine in the world is Photoshopped—a wrinkle unwrinkled here, eye unbagged there, an inch lost or gained below and above the midriff. We assume, when we look at a flattering photo of a celebrity that it was Photoshopped first (apparently every celebrity has a Photoshopper to do just this.)

But what of news photos? How do we feel about manipulation then?

Take the latest hoo-ha over some BP photos. Turns out that some photos on its website were tweaked to make BP look a bit more on-the-ball about monitoring the Gulf oil spill than it really was. Blank screens at its Houston command center were filled with images copied from other screens, prompting a search of BP’s website for other altered photos.

Another photo showed a helicopter apparently approaching the site of the spill. Upon closer inspection the helicopter was actually on the deck of an aircraft carrier. One can only guess why BP thought it necessary to make the chopper look as if it was flying.

BP, to its credit, has come clean and posted all the photos to a Flickr page “for the sake of transparency.”

But of course, it’s not enough. First off, the explanation is weasel-like: it places the blame on a “contract photographer” and writes vaguely of incidents where “cut-and-paste was also used in the photo-editing process.” It promises to instruct the photographer not to do it again and “to adhere to standard photo journalistic best practices.”

Well, yes and no. I’m willing to bet that a contract photographer did not make these kinds of decisions alone. And to suggest that a photographer contracted by BP to make photos for BP is somehow being asked to perform as a photo journalist is disingenuous.

I’m guessing, for example, that if the contract photographer had snapped some images of dying pelicans or oil-heavy beaches they wouldn’t be posted to the BP website “to adhere to standard photo journalistic best practices.” (In fact it’s quite fun to browse their photo gallery and look at how carefully the photos have been collected and presented. Compare them with others on Flickr, the titles of which sound unfortunately like items on a menu: “Hermit Crabs In BP Oil,” for example.)

Of course, no one expects BP to publish anything that may undermine its position. The problem lies with the fact that someone, somewhere in BP thought it worth tampering with what it did publish to improve its position.

Some have argued, so what? They fiddled with a couple of photos to make themselves seem a bit more industrious than they really were. So what?

Well, I would have thought it obvious, but the fact that people have argued this suggests it requires an answer. First off, it was bloggers who exposed the fraud. Hats off to them. A sign that crowd-sourcing this kind of thing works.

Secondly, while in itself more pathetic than malign, the manipulation proves that manipulation happens. We (well, not we journalists, but we bloggers) checked, and found the photos were faked. What else has BP faked?

Suggesting it’s the work of some rogue contract photographer doesn’t cut it. If BP’s PR crew knew what they were doing, and held themselves to “stand photo journalistic best practices, ” they would have spotted the amateurish Photoshopping and taken action.

Instead they didn’t spot it, or spotted it and didn’t care, or they actually commissioned it. Or did it themselves. Whatever, they didn’t come clean, so to speak, until they’d been had, and then wheeled out the “transparency defense”—a tad too late, I fear, to convince anyone that that’s where their instincts lay.

Photos, you see, are pretty strong stuff.

Since their invention we have granted them special powers. Photographs preserve information and speak to us in a way that words do not—and, perhaps, video. Think of all those photos that have captured not only a moment but a slice of history: 9/11, the Vietnam War, the Spanish Civil War.

The problem is that we’re gradually waking up to the fact that photographs lie. It’s an odd process, this learning about the power of misrepresentation. It’s part technology, part distance, part a growing understanding that we have ascribed photos a power and finality they don’t deserve.

Let me put it more simply through an example: Robert Capa’s famous 1936 photo of the Falling Soldier. This one photo seemed to sum up not only the Spanish Civil War, but war itself. Only, it’s now widely believed the photo was staged, that Capa may have asked the soldier to fake his death. Does it matter?

Capa’s biographer Richard Whelan argues it doesn’t, that “the picture’s greatness actually lies in its symbolic implications, not in its literal accuracy.”

This, is, of course, incorrect. Its symbolic implications lie in its accuracy.

And, of course, this is the problem. We need our photos to say something, to express a view that supplements, that goes beyond, the text that might accompany them, the truth that we need to have illustrated for us. And that’s where the problem begins.

Capa may not have intended his photo to be quite so iconic. After all, he took a bunch of photos that day, most of them unremarkable. An editor decided this was one of those he would publish.

Photographers are now aware they get one shot. So they’re pushed to capture more and more in the frame—more, perhaps, than was ever there. And, it turns out, have been doing so for as long as there have been cameras. One of the first war photographs, of the Crimean War’s Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton in 1855, was staged—by physically moving cannonballs to the middle of the road.

Nowadays the cannonballs could have been moved more easily: by Photoshop. A mouse click can add smoke to burning buildings in the Lebanon, to thicken a crowd, darken OJ Simpson’s face, or, in the case of Xinhua photographer Liu Weiqing, add antelope to a photo of a high-speed train.

Just as digitizing makes all this easier, so it makes it easier to spot errors. The problem is that we don’t have time to do this, meaning that it falls to bloggers and others online to do the work for us.

But it’s not as easy as it may look with hindsight, and the fact that we create a distinction between images we expect to be faked—fashion, celebrity, sex—and those we don’t—news, suggests that we either have to get a lot better at spotting fakery or we need to insist that photos contain some watermark to prove they are what they’re purporting to be.

The bottom line is that it’s probably a good thing that the first question we ask of a photo is whether it’s fake. Turns out that we should have been asking that question a long time ago.

But there’s another possibility: that there may come a point where we just don’t trust photos anymore. It’s probably up to us journalists to find a way to stop that from happening.

Nonsense Linking, Or the Rise of the Cheap Bot

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I’m a big fan of The Guardian, but their auto-linking software needs some tweaking. It’s a classic example of trying to provide that extra value to data on the cheap.

My argument for a while has been that the only lasting way for traditional media to make itself competitive again is not to create more, but to create better.

In one key sense this is about injecting extra value into words: metatagging them, in short, so that other content belonging to the media—or others—adds context.

But this is not easy. Lots of people are trying it, and some are doing interesting stuff with it. But building a library of words that creates automatic links to categories within the one site, as The Guardian is doing, is not it.

Take the example above. It’s in an article written by a woman who has given up sex for a year (neat and easily sellable book idea, or what?). But in the example above, where she’s talking about her lack of love life as a young journalist (tell me about it) she mentions her dating experiences.

The Guardian’s autolinker parses the story at some point and inserts a link for the word ‘dating’ to the paper’s ‘Lifestyle and Dating’ section.

Another example appears lower in the story, where relationships are mentioned, leading inexorably to a link to the section on Relationships:

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Now there’s nothing wrong with this story appearing in either of those sections (and it does), but to autolink these words to the section is meaningless. It’s out of context. It lacks context. It’s not contextual. It’ doesn’t add value.

Indeed, it cheapens all the good linking that is going on in The Guardian, because it reduces the reader’s trust in the value of all those links.

If you as the reader start to see links all over the place to places that don’t add value to what you’re reading, pretty soon you’re going to stop seeing those links.

So, Guardian, drop the autolinking bot and spend time thinking up a better way of adding value to your content. Metadata is too valuable, too important, to leave to cheap bots.

My year without sex, by Hephzibah Anderson | Life and style | The Guardian

We’re All Information Gatherers Now

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When we talk about the future of newspapers, the future of education, the future of media, and the future of learning we tend to ignore the most important aspect. We tend to focus on information delivery and not on the nature of information seeking. We think, somehow, that we still need to get the same kind of information to people, but just in a different way. But the bigger shift is how the Internet has changed what kind of information we’re looking for and how we go about finding it.

A British Library report on the future of libraries [PDF] hits the nail on the head:

Library users demand 24/7 access, instant gratification at a click, and are increasingly looking for “the answer” rather than for a particular format: a research monograph or a journal article for instance. So they scan, flick and “power browse” their way through digital content, developing new forms of online reading on the way that we do not yet fully understand (or, in many cases, even recognise.)

A page later, the report says:

In general terms, this new form of information seeking behaviour can be characterised as being horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature. Users are promiscuous, diverse and volatile and it is clear that these behaviours represent a serious challenges for traditional information providers, nurtured in a hardcopy paradigm and, in many respects, still tied to it.

 John Naughton at The Observer helps put this in context:

What Marshall McLuhan called ‘the Gutenberg galaxy’ – that universe of linear exposition, quiet contemplation, disciplined reading and study – is imploding, and we don’t know if what will replace it will be better or worse.

This is true, of course, not just of libraries and academia. It’s true of newspapers and pretty much any medium that delivers information. The Internet has forced us, encouraged us, to develop scanning techniques way beyond the simple quick-reading skills of old. Now if I’m looking for information on the Gutenberg Galaxy I can do so quickly on Wikipedia simply by selecting the words on the page, right-clicking and selecting Search Google for… in the pop-up menu. Time taken: 2 seconds. (Indeed, Naughton and The Guardian/Observer could be considered somewhat backward by not providing the link in the piece itself.)

This ability to secure, and appetite for, quick access to snippets information (what I guess we used to call “gobbets“) is part and parcel of the web and of the lives of those who spend any time on it. Why hunt for a dictionary if you can look it up on your cellphone/laptop/fridge display? The impact is still not properly understood or studied, however. If we satisfy our curiosity so easily, does our curiosity grow in all directions, both in breadth and depth, or does it flit from flower to flower like a bumble-bee in summer?

The British Library research seems to suggest the latter. Using words like horizontal, bouncing, checking, viewing, promiscuous, diverse and volatile seems to suggest we’re entering a world where people are fickle and their attention spans short. Once the initial curiosity is satisfied (“What the hell is a gobbet?”) the reader moves on, following the Serendipidity of the Hyperlink.

On the other hand, the word seems to suggest the readers have built-in safeguards against misinformation and inaccuracy. Our scanning skills are honed beyond merely being able to take in a page of information quickly. We — or most of us; Facebook seems to presenting a challenge, if all the gullible messages my friends send me are representative — are able to judge the source of information too, based on the layout, design and style of a web page and its contents.

This latter skill may be more important in the long run. Perhaps the shift is more about our understanding of what we need to know, and the time we can dedicate to knowing it, than to any shift in our attention span or ability to absorb deep columns of information.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, in fact, was bound to come to an end sometime. We simply have too much information to digest nowadays to be able, most of us, to take a leisurely stroll through the literature. And, frankly, in academic terms, much of the literature could be better and more tightly written. (I admit, I scanned the BT report and was mildly irritated it was a) in PDF format which slows digestion, b) didn’t conform to usual layouts and c) lacked an executive summary and conclusion).

If there wasn’t much information out there, and not much access to it, I would probably be quite happy dedicating my time to knowing a lot about Chaucer or the sex life of the fruitfly, and not much else. But the Internet has taught us a valuable lesson that we, as a race, seem to have forgotten: That there is so much stuff to learn out there we should be in a mad race to learn as much as we can about it as we can before we’re run over by a Sat Nav-dependent truck.

Perhaps our generation will be the last to be stupid enough to think we know enough as individuals to be smart (or conversely, happy to wallow in our specialist expertise and general ignorance). Future generations may look back at us and ask why we were so incurious about all the things in front of us we didn’t know anything about. Right now, I’d settle for knowing why the sky is blue, how many Grand Slam tournaments there are, what a grommet is and why there seem to be so many different types of plug to go on the end of a coaxial cable.

Thank God we’re at last beginning to learn the skills necessary to find that stuff out before breakfast.

Reading:

John Naughton: Thanks, Gutenberg – but we’re too pressed for time to read | Media | The Observer

Gutenberg and the changing nature of how we read and find information

‘Google Generation’ is a myth: pioneering research

Protect Your Privacy With Twiglets

laplink

I really hate being asked for lots of private details just to download a product. In short: People shouldn’t have to register to try something out. An email address, yes, if absolutely necessary.

But better not: just let the person decide whether they like it. It’s the online equivalent of a salesperson shadowing you around the shop so closely that if you stop or turn around quickly they bump into you. (One assistant in Marks & Spencer the other day tailed me so closely I could smell his breath, which wasn’t pleasant, and then had the gall to signal to the cashier it was his commission when I did, without his help, choose something to buy.) I nearly put some Marks & Spencer Twiglets up his nose but that branch doesn’t sell them.

Anywhere, latest offender in this regard is Laplink, who ask for way too much personal information just to download trial versions of their products, including email address, full name, address, post code, company name. Then they do that annoying thing at the end of trying to trick you into letting them send you spam with the old Three Tick Boxes Only One of Which You Should Tick if You Don’t Want To End In Every Spammers List From Here To Kudus Trick:

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Rule of thumb there is to tick the third one in the row because it’s always the opposite of the other ones. As if we’re that stupid.

The other rule of thumb is never to put anything accurate in the fields they do require you to fill out. Not even your gender. Childish? Yes, maybe, but not half as childish as their not trusting you enough to decide whether you like the product on your own terms and not fill their spamming lists.

Of course the better rule of thumb is not to have anything to do with companies that employ such intrusiveness and trickery, but we’d never do anything then.

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Sudoku’s Secret: Open Source Collaboration

Great piece in the NYT/IHT on the company behind Sudoku and similar games. Their approach — no trademarking, harnessing users to help develop and perfect games — all sounds very Open Source:

clipped from www.iht.com

Nikoli’s secret, Kaji said, lay in a kind of democratization of puzzle invention. The company itself does not actually create many new puzzles — an American invented an earlier version of Sudoku, for example. Instead, Nikoli provides a forum for testing and perfecting them. About 50,000 readers of its main magazine submit ideas; the most promising are then printed by Nikoli to seek approval and feedback from other readers.

Whistling In The Dark

OK, this is not tech related but I’d like to know the answer. What exactly does ‘whistling in the dark’ mean? I found several different definitions (not including sexual ones. This is a family blog):

Can it be that the expression means different things in different places?

Is Google Making Journalists Sloppy?

Interesting piece from MediaBistro about how journalists use Google searches as a fast and loose way to prove a point.

The article doesn’t pull its punches. “What’s a simpler, or faster, way of quantifying a trend,” writes Lionel Beehner, “than typing a key word or phrase into Google? Type in almost any person, place, or thing, and Google will bounce back to you a neat numerical value that calculates that person, place, or thing’s importance to this world.” Beehner’s conclusion: “ Sad to say, plugging Google in a story has become almost a telltale sign of sloppy reporting, a hack’s version of a Rolodex.”

I’d certainly agree that in most of the examples cited, there could be a better way of gauging the popularity of something, whether it’s Britney Spears haters or building backyard ice rinks. Just to say a phrase or name is popular, widespread or a major trend because of the number of Google hits may not only be sloppy, but also faulty logic. But Google searches do have a value. You’ve just got to understand that what you’re searching is the Internet: a lop-sided, top-heavy, chaotic library of information gathered in the past 10 years or so.

When Beehner ridicules an LA Times journalist for describing a sports writer as ‘distinguished’ just because his name brings back 21,000 hits, I think he’s probably right. (Depending on whether the search results were throwing up his writings, discussion about his writings, complaints about his writings or references to his collections of Lego wine bottles, I would have used ‘prolific’, ‘oft-cited’, ‘eccentrically hobbied’ or whatever.) But when he has a go at another LAT journalist who uses Google to show there are “793 websites devoted to” Audrey Hepburn a decade after her death, I would raise an objection. Does ‘devoted to’ just mean references, as in movie listings (her career, after all, did span five decades) or are these fan sites? If the latter, I would say that’s a fair statistic.

Bottom line: Journalism has changed a lot with the Internet. The values underpinning it haven’t. Google is a great resource, and what it tells us, both in specifics (sites to go to) and in aggregate (results), is useful stuff. But next time you read a Google search as a piece of reporting to back up a statement, take a closer look.