May 082008

There is an interesting discussion going on over at Harvey Oberfeld’s blog about the state of TV news in British Columbia. In the first post, Harvey decries CTV and Global for ignoring important, breaking news (the Conservative funding scandal) in favour of “light” news (biodegradable coffee cups and an update on Canadian interest rates). (“Local TV News: Dumbing Down British Columbians“)

Harvey, now retired, was a senior reporter with BCTV (which was later acquired by Global). (See Wikipedia for his bio.)

In response to questions raised by the post (disclaimer – they were my questions), Harvey wrote a post about why lighter stories are favoured (“Debating T.V. News … the Beauty of Blogging!!“). This prompted a response from Cameron Bell – “State of the News: Read it and Weep!“. (Cameron Bell was the highly respected News Director for BCTV who is credited (along with Assignment Editor Keith Bradbury and the news crew they assembled) with bringing BCTV’s news program to the top of the ratings.)

Harvey points out that it mostly comes down to money – the amount of money a television station is willing to spend on the news-gathering process. Cameron Bell, however, notes that smart organizations are willing to spend lots of money provided that it generates commensurate profits. Profits are determined by the amount of revenue generated from advertising, which fluctuates depending on the number of viewers. The key to attracting viewers is quality content.

However, the low-hanging fruit – the easy stories – are duplicated and re-covered by multiple news organizations. Cameron Bell points out that three major news organizations (one newspaper, two television) covered the warm-up suits for Canadian Olympic athletes. He charitably (in my opinion) gives the original reporter credit for producing an interesting story. I don’t agree – I think it was a travesty of news on the first report that just got worse on subsequent reports.

I find this all extremely interesting, from a news consumer point of view (although my exposure to TV news is mostly limited to clips I see via the internet). It’s sort of a relief to learn that the there isn’t a grand conspiracy to dumb-down the news or avoid certain topics. Instead, there are merely difficult management problems – human resources, finances, planning and “vision”, etc.

 Posted by at 10:08 am
Mar 222005

courtesy of Edwinek on flickr The Economist’s 2005 edition of The Pocket World in Figures lists Lebanon as the country with the highest per-capita car ownership (732 per 1,000).


But wait, it gets weirder – New Zealand ranks second, with 578 per 1,000. The U.S. ranks 12th, at 481 per 1,000, Canada 15th with 458 per 1000.

Why Lebanon? And why so many more than the other countries at the top of the car charts?

 Posted by at 7:44 am
Mar 162005

Those of us of the Looney Tunes generation (Elmer Fudd in a metal bustier singing “I’m going to kill the waaaabbitt”) have a hard time taking opera seriously. And that’s a good thing. Opera is like wine – it’s wonderful unless there’s some wine pedant around yapping on about “an oaky sheen” and “a florescent bouquet”.

Così fan tutte played in Vancouver last night – Mozart’s opera about – get this – two guys that make a bet that their girlfriends will never be unfaithful, then dress up as different guys and seduce each other’s girlfriends, thus losing the bet, their girlfriends (sort of), and their general happiness and well-being. The fact that they’ve cruelly deceived and manipulated their girlfriends is not an issue – “Così fan tutte”, all women are the same. Continue reading »

 Posted by at 8:37 am
Mar 102005

Michael Geist (in the article “Say no to Big Brother plan for Internet” in The Toronto Star) describes the “Lawful Access Initiative” rattling around Ottawa. This is the one about making it easy for the police to eavesdrop on internet traffic, forcing ISPs to store and reveal usage information about their customers (and preventing ISPs from informing their customers when they’ve revealed private data) and allowing monster TelCos to discriminate against technologies like VoIP.

Also in the article is information about MP Sarmite Bulte’s initiative to abide by special restrictions regarding public domain content, by requiring them to apply for extended license. Upshot: even if a work is in the public domain, a school would have to pay fees to use it unless the work gave them explicit permission. sheeesh.

Write letters to these jokers. Dead trees and snail mail is better than email. My letter is attached, but don’t just copy it – write your own. Continue reading »

 Posted by at 8:06 am
Mar 082005

little oi
This week’s readings and assignments for my Philosophy Lite course are on the topic: “Does God Exist”. Because this is Phil. Lite, we get to cut to the chase: Anselm’s Ontological Argument in eight easy steps; E.O. Wilson’s genetic explanations of religious impulses distilled into a quarter page. Can’t beat that – in my (limited) previous experience with readings in philosophy, the problem is not understanding the arguments, it’s ferreting the damn things out of the massive wodges of tortuous prose in which they’re buried.

The fondness for massive wodges of tortuous prose starts early. In Philosophy Lite, we have to write Term Paper Lite – five double-spaced pages (minimum) arguing a philosophical point. Five pages minimum. What if I am able to refute Liebniz in three-and-a-half pages? What if I can demolish Kant in a paragraph? Continue reading »

 Posted by at 8:30 am
Mar 062005

In the February 5-11 edition of The Economist, the Economics Focus column discusses a recent paper in the Yale Law Journal by Yochnai Benkler titled “Sharing Nicely: On Shareable Goods and the Emergence of Sharing as a Modality of Economic Production” (available in PDF).

The first question, puzzling to practitioners of the dismal science, is why people – specifically open-source programmers – freely give away the products of their effort done outside of their employment hours. Where’s the “Rational Actor”? Where’s “Self-Interest”? Where’s the pay-back?

The “pure economic” theories tend to run along the lines of subtle pay-back: reputation and prestige leading to greater job prospects. The “social economic” theories talk about communities of reciprocity and trust that benefit all members. (The “geek economics” theories say: “What else would I do with my Friday night?” and “Dude, I need to WiFi my toaster.”)

And then there are characteristics of the computing field itself that influence this economic motivation: Continue reading »

 Posted by at 9:05 am
Mar 032005

In this article in The Guardian an autistic savant describes the view from inside his own head. (“When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges.”)

Daniel Tammet can speak eight languages (including one he devised himself) and can calculate pi to 22,514 decimal places. And, unusually for a person with autism, he is highly articulate – he can describe the perceptions and processes that occur in his mind.

The Experts are Interested, to say the least. “It’s too early to tell, but we hope it might throw some light on why we don’t all have savant abilities.”

That sentence sends a chill up my spine, because the logical extension is: “By studying Daniel, we might learn how to enable savant abilities in the general population.”

 Posted by at 9:39 am
Feb 232005

“It is true that Internet Explorer has been increasing market share from 1997 to 1999. But I predict that IE will never reach the same market dominance as that enjoyed by line-mode, Mosaic and Netscape from 1991 to 1996.”

Dr. Neilsen was basing his prediction on the assumption that browser usage would be determined by rationial choice, rather than monopolistic business practices. Too bad it didn’t work out that way.

Added March 4: Oh yeah – monopolistic business practices and the whole Netscape / AOL debacle. Can’t forget that.

 Posted by at 8:51 am
Feb 232005

It was interesting to take another cruise through Jakob Nielsen’s Designing Web Usability, the seminal book that, when it came out in 2000, defined design standards for web pages.

One interesting aspect is the evolution by which web metaphors become things that everybody knows. An example is the hyperlink: Nielsen recommends using default hyperlink colors (blue for unvisited, purple for visited). At the time of writing, the navigational components of the web weren’t so deeply ingrained that the designer could take for granted that the user could spot and understand hyperlinks.

Among current prevailing design fashions, the link metaphor is the underline, colors are optional, and page layout is sufficiently standardized (with navigational elements usually located in side and top panels) that some links don’t even have special visual characteristics that indicate that they’re a link.

On Nielsen’s site, however, unvisited links are blue and visited links are purple. Is Nielsen an anti-aesthetic curmudgeon? I doubt it. Rather, I expect that he remembers something that the savvy always and forever forget: He remembers that not everybody is savvy. Continue reading »

 Posted by at 7:32 am