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Posts Tagged ‘internet’

Facebook is Watching You!

May 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Recently I downloaded my Facebook data, just to find out what sort of information was stored about me there. I am not a super-heavy user of Facebook, but I do spend some time there multiple times every day, and I occasionally get into some fairly massive “debates” on various topics there, which use up a fair bit of time.

I also visit other social sites every day, such as Twitter and Quora. But, given the recent publicity regarding Facebook, I was most concerned about that. Actually, when I consider all of the “social” sites I use, it is surprising I ever get anything useful done!

I am aware of what Facebook is doing. I know that if I seem to be getting a service for free then there is a “payment” being made in some other way. And that is fair enough, because we live in a capitalist society, and despite its many obvious flaws – most of which I have complained about on numerous occasions – it works moderately well most of the time, and really well on a few occasions.

But Facebook is not one of the examples of where it has worked really well. It is not a good service, for both technical and political/business reasons. It is not good technically because it is poorly designed, and sometimes slow and unreliable. And it is not good politically because of the algorithms it uses are primarily designed to make you want to use it more, and to generate more income for the company, rather than providing a genuinely useful service.

So, given all this negativity, why do I use it? For the same reason I use all the other mediocre services and products (eBay, TradeMe, Microsoft Word, etc): because that’s what everyone else uses. That is literally the only reason I use it at all. Whenever I sign up to other similar services (Google+, Ello, Path, etc) I just don’t use them for long, because my friends and family aren’t there.

So I know Facebook is spying on me, and often in very subtle ways. But there was a recent example of something a lot more obvious. I was visiting a friend and he mentioned a new, relatively obscure style of wine I had never tried. So I Googled it on my phone while I was there. And yes, you guessed it: the next day an ad for that exact style appeared in my Facebook feed. I should say that a whole pile of things I wanted to see from friends didn’t appear, but this ad did. Thanks Facebook!

Another problem with Facebook is that it serves as a well-known, public repository of potentially contentious opinions you might hold. The fear of a future employer trolling your public Facebook feed, or even demanding your password to examine its contents, is well known. My opinion on this is that any employer prepared to resort to such offensive tactics isn’t worth working for anyway, and if they find something I have said publicly, that they don’t like, the same applies.

But managing this stuff is really quite easy. People just have to remember a few basic rules…

Number one. Work under the assumption that nothing you do on the internet, and especially in Facebook, is confidential. Assume everyone can see everything. If you want to make an anonymous comment use proxies, fake accounts, etc. Any half-decent computer geek can show you how to.

Number two. Don’t use any of the advertisers you have fed to you. If you see an ad in Facebook, or in a Google search, or anywhere else you haven’t asked for, ignore it. It fact, mark that particular company down for use in future. I’m not saying don’t use Facebook advertisers, but I am saying search using other techniques and choose companies that way. And if you use Google, do it anonymously and be less trustful of links marked with “Ad”.

Number three. Don’t take any of this too seriously. Most people and most companies aren’t really all that interested in you apart from as a potential target for advertising and possible sales. So take notice of the first two rules but don’t let it paralyse your use of the internet. Whatever its faults, it is still one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

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Random Clicking

January 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Nowadays, most people need to access information through computers, especially through web sites. Many people find the process involved with this quite challenging, and this isn’t necessarily restricted to older people who aren’t “digital natives”, or to people with no interest in, or predisposition towards technology.

In fact, I have found that many young people find some web interfaces bizarre and unintuitive. For example, my daughter (in her early 20s) thinks Facebook is badly designed and often navigates using “random clicking”. And I am a computer programmer with decades of experience but even I find some programs and some web sites completely devoid of any logical design, and I sometimes revert to the good old “random clicking” too!

For example, I received an email notification from Inland Revenue last week and was asked to look at a document on their web site. It should have taken 30 seconds but it took closer to 30 minutes and I only found the document using RC (random clicking).

Before I go further, let me describe RC. You might be presented with a web site or program/app interface and you want to do something. There might be no obvious way to get to where you want to go, or you might take the obvious route only to find it doesn’t go where you expected. Or, of course, you might get random error message like “page not available” or “internal server error” or even the dreaded “this app has quit unexpectedly” or the blue screen of death or spinning activity wheel.

So to make progress it is necessary just to do some RC on different elements, even if they make no sense, until you find what you are looking for. Or in more extreme cases you might even need to “hack” the system by entering deliberately fake information, changing a URL, etc.

What’s going on here? Surely the people involved with creating major web sites and widely used apps know what they are doing, don’t they? After all, many of these are the creations of large corporations with virtually unlimited resources and budgets. Why are there so many problems?

Well, there are two explanations: first, that errors do happen occasionally, no matter how competent the organisation involved is, and because we use these major sites and apps so often we will tend to see the errors more often too; and second, large corporations create stuff through a highly bureaucratic and obscure process and consistency and attention to detail is difficult to attain under such a scheme.

When I encounter errors, especially on web sites, I like to keep a record of it by taking a screenshot. I keep this in a folder to make me feel better if I make an error on any of my own projects, because it reminds me that sites created by organisations with a hundred programmers and huge budgets often have more problems those created by a single programmer with no budget.

So here are some of the sites I currently have in my errors folder…

APN (couldn’t complete your request due to an unexpected error – they’re the worst type!)
Apple (oops! an error occurred – helpful)
Audible (we see you are going to x, would you rather go to x?)
Aurora (trying to get an aurora prediction, just got a “cannot connect to database”)
BankLink (page not found, oh well I didn’t really want to do my tax return anyway)
BBC (the world’s most trusted news source, but not the most trusted site)
CNet (one of the leading computer news sources, until it fails)
DCC (local body sites can be useful – when they work)
Facebook (a diabolical nightmare of bad design, slowness, and bugginess)
Herald (NZ’s major newspaper, but their site generates lots of errors)
InternetNZ (even Internet NZ has errors on their site)
IRD (Inland Revenue has a few good features, but their web site is terrible overall)
Medtech (yeah, good luck getting essential medical information from here)
Mercury (the messenger of the gods dropped his message)
Microsoft (I get errors here too many times to mention)
Fast Net (not so fast when it doesn’t work)
Origin (not sure what the origin of this error was)
Porsche (great cars, web site not so great)
State Insurance (state, the obvious choice for a buggy web site)
Ticketmaster (I don’t have permission for the section of the site needed to buy tickets)
TradeMe (NZ’s equivalent of eBay is poorly designed and quite buggy)
Vodafone (another ISP with web site errors)
WordPress (the world’s leading blogging platform, really?)
YesThereIsAGod (well if there is a god, he needs to hire better web designers)

Note that I also have a huge pile of errors generated by sites at my workplace. Also, I haven’t even bothered storing examples of bad design, or of problems with apps.

As I said, there are two types of errors, and those caused by temporary outages are annoying but not disastrous. The much bigger problem is the sites and apps which are just inherently bad. The two most prominent examples are Facebook and Microsoft Word. Yes, those are probably the most widely used web site and most widely used app in the world. If they are so bad why are they so popular?

Well, popularity can mean two things: first, something is very widely used, even if it is not necessarily very well appreciated; and second, something which is well-liked by users and is utilised because people like it. So you could say tax or work is popular because almost everyone participates in them, but that drinking alcohol, or smoking dope, or sex, or eating burgers is popular because everyone likes them!

Facebook and Word are popular but most people think they could be made so much better. Also many people realise there are far better alternatives but they just cannot be used because of reasons not associated with quality. For example, people use Facebook because everyone else does, and if you want to interact with other people you all need to use the same site. And Word is widely used because that is what many workplaces demand, and many people aren’t even aware there are alternatives.

The whole thing is a bit grim, isn’t it? But there is one small thing I would suggest which could make things better: if you are a developer with a product which has a bad interface, and you can’t be almost certain that you can improve it significantly, don’t bother trying. People can get used to badly designed software, but coping with changes to an equally bad but different interface in a new version is annoying.

The classic example is how Microsoft has changed the interface between Office 2011 and Office 2016 (these are the Mac versions, but the same issue exists on Windows). The older version has a terrible, primitive user interface but after many years people have learned to cope with it. The newer version has an equally bad interface (maybe worse) and users have to re-learn it for no benefit at all.

So, Microsoft, please just stop trying. You have a captive audience for your horrible software so just leave it there. Bring out a new version so you can steal more money from the suckers who use it, but don’t try to improve the user interface. Your users will thank you for it.

Making Us Smart

June 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Many people think the internet is making us dumb. They think we don’t use our memory any more because all the information we need is on the web in places like Wikipedia. They think we don’t get exposed to a variety of ideas because we only visit places which already hold the same views as we do. And they think we spend too much time on social media discussing what we had for breakfast.

Is any of this stuff true? Well, in some cases it is. Some people live very superficial lives in the virtual world but I suspect those same people are just naturally superficial and would act exactly the same way in the real world.

For example, very few people, before the internet became popular, remembered a lot of facts. Back then, some people owned the print version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and presumably these were people who valued knowledge because the print version wasn’t cheap!

But a survey run by the company found that the average owner only used that reference once per year. If they only referred to an encyclopedia once a year it doesn’t give them much to remember really, does it?

Today I probably refer to Wikipedia multiple times per day. Sure I don’t remember many of the details of what I have read, but I do tend to get a good overview of the subject I am researching or get a specific fact for a specific purpose.

And finding a subject in Wikipedia is super-easy. Generally it only takes a few seconds, compared with much longer looking in an index, choosing the right volume, and finding the correct page of a print encyclopedia.

Plus Wikipedia has easy to use linking between subjects. Often a search for one subject leads down a long and interesting path to other, related topics which I might never learn about otherwise.

Finally, it is always up to date. The print version was usually years old but I have found information in Wikipedia which refers to an event which happened just hours before I looked.

So it seems to me that we have a far richer and more accessible information source now than we have ever had in the past. I agree that Wikipedia is susceptible to a certain extent to false or biased information but how often does that really happen? Very rarely in my experience, and a survey done a few years back indicated the number of errors in Wikipedia was fairly similar to Brittanica (which is also a web-based source now, anyway).

Do we find ourselves mis-remembering details or completely forgetting something we have just seen on the internet? Sure, but that isn’t much to do with the source. It’s because the human brain is not a very good memory device. If it was true that we are remembering less (and I don’t think it is) that might even be a good thing because it means we have to get our information from a reliable source instead!

And it’s not even that this is a new thing. Warnings about how new technologies are going to make us dumb go back many years. A similar argument was made when mass production of books became possible. Few people would agree with that argument now and few people will agree with it being applied to the internet in future.

What about the variety of ideas issue? Well people who only interact with sources that tell them what they want to believe on-line would very likely do the same thing off-line.

If someone is a fundamentalist Christian, for example, they are very unlikely to be in many situations where they will be exposed to views of atheists or Muslims. They just wouldn’t spend much time with people like that.

In fact, again there might be a greater chance to be exposed to a wider variety of views on-line, although I do agree that the echo-chambers of like-minded opinion like Facebook and other sites often tend to be is a problem.

And a similar argument applies to the presumption that most discussion on-line is trivial. I often hear people say something like “I don’t use Twitter because I don’t care what someone had for breakfast”. When I ask how much time they have spent on Twitter I am not surprised to hear that it is usually zero.

Just to give a better idea of what value can come from social media, here is the topic of the top few entries in my current Twitter feed…

I learned that helium is the only element that was discovered in space before found on earth. (I already knew that because I am an amateur astronomer, but it is an interesting fact, anyway).

New Scientist reported that the ozone layer recovery will be delayed by chemical leaks (and it had a link if I want details).

ZDNet (a computer news and information site) tweeted the title of an article: “Why I’m still surprised the iPhone didn’t die.” (and again there was a link to the article).

New Scientist also tweeted that a study showed that “Urban house finches use fibres from cigarette butts in their nests to deter parasites” (where else would you get such valuable insights!)

Guardian Science reported that “scientists explain rare phenomenon of ‘nocturnal sun'” (I’ll probably read that one later).

ZDNet reported the latest malware problem with the headline “A massive cyberattack is hitting organisations around the world” (I had already read that article)

Oxford dictionaries tweeted a link to an article about “33 incredible words ending in -ible and -able” (I’ll read that and add it to my interesting English words list).

The Onion (a satirical on-line news site) tweeted a very useful article on “Tips For Choosing The Right Pet” including advice such as “Consider a rabbit for a cuddly, low cost pet you can test your shampoo on”.

Friedrice Nietzsche tweeted “five easy pentacles” (yes, I doubt this person is related to the real Nietzsche, and I also have no idea what it means).

Greenpeace NZ linked to an article “Read the new report into how intensive livestock farming could be endangering our health” (with a link to the report).

Otago Philosophy tweeted that “@Otago philosopher @jamesmaclaurin taking part in the Driverless Future panel session at the Institute of Public Works Engineers Conference” (with a link).

I don’t see a lot of trivial drivel about breakfast there. And where else would I get such an amazing collection of interesting stuff? Sure, I get that because I chose to follow people/organisations like science magazines, philosophers, and computer news sources, but there is clearly nothing inherently useless about Twitter.

So is the internet making us dumb? Well, like any tool or source, if someone is determined to be misinformed and ignorant the internet can certainly help, but it’s also the greatest invention of modern times, the greatest repository of information humanity has ever had, and something that, when treated with appropriate respect, will make you really smart, not dumb!

I’m a Troll

May 19, 2017 Leave a comment

In the old Norwegian fairy tale, Three Billy Goats Gruff, the three goats must try to cross a bridge to get to richer meadows, but are challenged by a fearsome and hideous troll. This guy is both territorial and aggressive, and has a habit of trying to eat anything that dares to cross the bridge.

Is this a good metaphor for our friend, the internet troll? Maybe it is. But the word “troll” is another one on my list of words I try to avoid using, and my reader, Derek Ramsey, indicated he would like to see my reasons why, probably because he (along with many others) thinks I might indulge in a certain amount of trolling activity myself!

Here’s the definition of an internet troll, from Wikipedia: “…a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community … with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion often for the troll’s amusement.”

Having read this I have to admit that I do sometimes stir up trouble just for the fun of it. But even then I do have a higher purpose, and I would like to think that the majority of the time I am accused of “trolling” I am actually trying to make people think in a different way, or trying to make people question their fundamental beliefs, or even offering my opinion with the possibility that it will be proved wrong.

So trolling is more a matter of intent rather than form, and it is just too easy for people with unpopular or alternative views to be dismissed by the majority because they are “just a troll”.

The first time I was excluded from an on-line community due to “excess trolling” was many years ago when I used to offer “alternative commentary” on a site called “GodTube” (I know it looks like I made that up, but it is a real site). This site offers “Christian, funny, inspirational, music, ministry, educational, cute and videos” with a religious perspective.

Of course, that is fine and people are welcome to have communities which represent their interests, but I also think that the internet makes it too easy to enter an “echo chamber” of like-minded people who exclusively parrot the standard dogma of the group and prevent a wider perspective from emerging.

And then there are the blatant lies. In particular I found a lot of anti-science and anti-atheism material on GodTube that I felt I should offer an alternative perspective on. I knew this would cause some of the effects described in the definition of a troll. I knew it would sow discord, I knew it would upset people, I knew it was inflammatory, and I knew it would likely evoke an emotional response and disrupt normal, on-topic discussion.

And, to be honest, it was to a certain extent, for my own amusement.

Hey, now that I read all that I realise that I am a troll! But that is the whole point. In that situation I don’t think that being a troll was bad, and that’s why I don’t like the word.

After many instances of challenging videos on GodTube which rejected evolution, tried to show that the Christian god was supported by real evidence, pretended that events like the Flood, Exodus, etc were actually real, and generally denigrated atheism and science, I was kicked off the community. I could have created a new account and carried on but I thought a break would be good and I moved onto other projects. After all, a troll’s work is never done!

More recently I have been un-friended on Facebook for daring to challenge left-wing ideology which I believe is not based on reality. Since I clearly identify with the political left myself this might seem strange, but I think it is even more important that the “team” I support is credible than that the “other team” is. After all, I can just laugh at the idiotic ideas held by conservatives or fundamentalist Christians, but when a similar criticism could be applied to those I would normally support it becomes difficult.

So when a whole bunch of “lefties” are talking about how dreadful society is as a result of another post, based on absolutely zero real-world evidence, about misogyny, I naturally like to point out that they are doing exactly what they accuse conservatives of, and exactly what turns moderates away from their perspective: they are unquestioningly accepting ideology as fact.

It could very well be that the phenomenon is real, but simple-minded support for a silly political doctrine in an echo chamber of far-left political correctness is no proof, and is certainly no way to approach a problem in an honest way.

And that’s where a bit of what could be uncharitably called trolling or more positively called challenging ideas is called for. And that’s what I do. If people don’t like it they can point out where I am wrong (and that has happened on rare occasions) or they can just shut me down because I’m a “troll”. But how does that second approach achieve anything worthwhile?

It doesn’t, and that’s why we need people to challenge established beliefs. We don’t need this in an extreme or dishonest form such as that practiced by a genuine troll, but it is hard to say which is which – when does a fair challenge to majority beliefs become trolling? It’s too hard to say, so the idea of trolling itself is best avoided.

We don’t need to ban the troll, we need to ban the excuse of ignoring someone by labelling them a troll. That’s my point. Who disagrees with that?

The Internet is Best!

March 17, 2017 Leave a comment

I hear a lot of debate about whether the internet is making us dumb, uninformed, or more close-minded. The problems with a lot of these debates are these: first, saying the internet has resulted in the same outcome for everyone is too simplistic; second, these opinions are usually offered with no justification other than it is just “common sense” or “obvious”; and third, whatever the deficiencies of the internet, is it better or worse than not having an internet?

There is no doubt that some people could be said to be more dumb as the result of their internet use. By “dumb” I mean being badly informed (believing things which are unlikely to be true) or not knowing basic information at all, and by “internet use” I mean all internet services people use to gather information: web sites, blogs, news services, email newsletters, podcasts, videos, etc.

How can this happen when information is so ubiquitous? Well information isn’t knowledge, or at least it isn’t necessarily truth, and it certainly isn’t always useful. It is like the study (which was unreplicated so should be viewed with some suspicion) showing that people who watch Fox News are worse informed about news than people who watch no news at all.

That study demonstrates three interesting points: first, people can be given information but gather no useful knowledge as a result; second, non-internet sources can be just as bad a source as the internet itself; and third, this study (being unreplicated and politically loaded) might itself be an example of an information source which is potentially misleading.

So clearly any information source can potentially make people dumber. Before the internet people might have been made dumber by reading printed political newsletters, or watching trashy TV, or by listening to a single opinion at the dinner table, or by reading just one type of book.

And some people will mis-use information sources where others will gain a lot by using the same source. Some will get dumber while others get a lot smarter by using the same sources.

And (despite the Fox News study above) if the alternative to having an information source which can be mis-used is having no information source at all, then I think taking the flawed source is the best option.

Anecdotes should be used with extreme caution, but I’m going to provide some anyway, because this is a blog, not a scientific paper. I’m going to say why I think the internet is a good thing from my own, personal perspective.

I’m interested in everything. I don’t have a truly deep knowledge about anything but I like to think I have a better than average knowledge about most things. My hero amongst Greek philosophers is Eratosthenes, who was sometimes known as “Beta”. This was because he was second best at everything (beta is the second letter in the Greek alphabet which I can recite in full, by the way).

The internet is a great way to learn a moderate amount about many things. Actually, it’s also a great way to learn a lot about one thing too, as long as you are careful about your sources, and it is a great way to learn nothing about everything.

I work in a university and I get into many discussions with people who are experts in a wide range of different subjects. Obviously I cannot match an expert’s knowledge about their precise area but I seem to be able to at least have a sensible discussion, and ask meaningful questions.

For example, in recent times I have discussed the political situation in the US, early American punk bands, the use of drones and digital photography in marine science, social science study design, the history of Apple computers, and probably many others I can’t recall right now.

I hate not knowing things, so when I hear a new word, or a new idea, I immediately Google it on my phone. Later, when I have time, I retrieve that search on my tablet or computer and read a bit more about it. I did this recently with the Gibbard-Satterhwaite Theorem (a mathematical theorem which involves the fairness of voting systems) which was mentioned in a podcast I was listening to.

Last night I was randomly browsing YouTube and came across some videos of extreme engines being started and run. I’ve never seen so much flame and smoke, and heard so much awesome noise. But now I know a bit about big and unusual engine designs!

The videos only ran for 5 or 10 minutes each (I watched 3) so you might say they were quite superficial. A proper TV documentary on big engines would probably have lasted an hour and had far more detail, as well as having a more credible source, but even if a documentary like that exists, would I have seen it? Would I have had an hour free? What would have made me seek out such an odd topic?

The great thing about the internet is not necessarily the depth of its information but just how much there is. I could have watched hundreds of movies on big engines if I had the time. And there are more technical, detailed, mathematical treatments of those subjects if I want them. But the key point is that I would probably know nothing about the subject if the internet didn’t exist.

Here’s a few other topics I have got interested in thanks to YouTube: maths (the numberphile series is excellent), debating religion (I’m a sucker for an atheist experience video, or anything by Christopher Hitchens), darts (who knew the sport of darts could be so dramatic?), snooker (because that’s what happens after darts), Russian jet fighters, Formula 1 engines, classic British comedy (Fawlty Towers, Father Ted, etc).

What would I do if I wasn’t doing that? Watching conventional TV maybe? Now what were my options there: a local “current affairs” program with the intellectual level of an orangutan (with apologies to our great ape cousins), some frivolous reality TV nonsense, a really un-funny American sitcom? Whatever faults the internet has, it sure is a lot better than any of that!

Pokemon No!

July 30, 2016 Leave a comment

I am a proud computer (and general technology) geek and I see all things geeky as being a big part of my culture. So I don’t really identify much with my nationality of New Zealander, or of traditional Pacific or Maori values (I’m not Maori anyway but many people still think that should be part of my culture), or of the standard interests of my compatriots like rugby, outdoor activities, or beer – well OK, maybe I do identify with the beer!

Being a geek transcends national boundaries and traditional values. I go almost everywhere with my 4 main Apple products: a MacBook Pro laptop, an iPad Pro, an iPhone 6S, and an Apple Watch. They are all brilliant products and I do use them all every day.

For me, the main aspects of being a geek involve “living on the internet” and sourcing most of my information from technology sources, and participating in geek events and activities.

By “living on the internet” I mean that I can’t (or maybe just don’t) go for any period of time (I mean a few hours) without participating in social media, checking internet information sources (general news, new products, etc), or seeking out random material on new subjects from sites such as Quora.

I mainly stay informed not by watching TV (although I still do watch TV news once per day) or listening to radio news (again, I do spend a small amount of time on that too) but by listening to streaming material and podcasts. In fact, podcasts are my main source of information because I can listen to them at any time, avoid most advertising, and listen again to anything which was particularly interesting.

And finally there are the events and activities. Yeah, I mainly mean games. I freely admit that I spend some time every day playing computer games. Sometimes it is only 5 minutes but it is usually more, and sometimes a lot more. Some people think a mature (OK, maybe getting on towards “old”) person like me shouldn’t be doing that and that I should “grow up”. Needless to say I think these people are talking crap.

And so we come to the main subject of this post, the latest computer (or more accurately phone and tablet) game phenomenon: Pokemon GO. The game was released first in the US, Australia, and New Zealand and instantly became a huge hit. Of course, since it was a major new component of geek culture, I felt I should be playing it, but I didn’t want it to become a big obsession.

And I think I did well avoiding it for almost 3 days, but yes, I’m playing it now, with moderate intensity (level 17 after a couple of weeks). Today I explained the gameplay to an older person who never plays games and he asked: but what is the point? Well, there is no real, practical point of course, but I could ask that about a lot of things.

For example, if an alien landed and I took him to a rugby game he might ask what’s the point of those guys running around throwing a ball to each other. Obviously, there’s no point. And what’s the point of sitting in front of a TV and watching some tripe like “The Block” or some crappy sopa opera? Again, there’s no point. In reality, what’s the point of living? Well, let’s not go there until I do another post about philosophy.

So anyone who criticises playing computer games because they have no practical point should think a little bit more about what they are really saying and why.

And there’s another factor in all of this that bugs me too. It’s the fact that almost universally the people who criticise games like Pokemon GO not only have never played them but know almost nothing about them either. They are just letting their petty biases and ignorance inform their opinions. It’s quite pathetic, really.

So to all those people who criticise me for playing Pokemon GO, Real Racing 3 (level 162 after many years play, and yes, it is the greatest game of all time), Clash of Clans (level 110 after 4 years play), and a few others, I say get the hell over it. And if you do want to criticise me just get a bit better informed first. And maybe you should stop all those pointless habits you have (and that I don’t criticise you for) like watching junk programs on TV.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go find some more Pokemon. Gotta catch ’em all!

The Best News Source

February 21, 2016 Leave a comment

As you may know (and there’s know way you couldn’t if you follow this blog) I listen to a lot of podcasts. The great thing about these is that they can be created and distributed quite easily and because of the history of the technology they tend to be both created and used by technically and scientifically literate people.

But many people consider them a lesser source of news and information – lesser than traditional sources like TV and radio news for example. But are they? I don’t think so.

I consume quite a lot of information on many topics and from many sources. Some of the topics I would consider myself quite knowledgeable about and others not so much. The thing is, that when I listen to material on topics I know a fair bit about from “conventional” sources – even fairly respectable sources like New Zealand’s RNZ National – I notice a lot of errors. I don’t tend to notice this so much with internet sources like podcasts.

There are some complicating factors here. First, most of the RNZ material I listen to is actually in the form of podcasts, but I don’t count them in that category because they are really just recordings of radio items. The “true” podcasts are audio (or sometimes video) programs created specifically for that purpose. And it’s the true podcasts I am promoting as a superior source of information. Second, there are a lot of terrible podcasts, which are probably even less accurate than the traditional sources, but those aren’t the ones I’m listening to.

So it seems to me that if I listen to an item from a traditional source about computers, or astronomy, or an area of science I’m interested in, and almost always notice errors, then it’s likely that there are errors in all the other material too. I just don’t notice it so much in relation to the other topics because I’m not expert enough on those.

So it is a bit of a concern, isn’t it? The sources of news and information that most people use are not accurate.

I think there are a few factors which have lead to this unfortunate situation. First, there is a strong emphasis on providing unchallenging, simplified, entertaining presentations of information today. Second, many items in mainstream sources (TV, radio, newspapers) are created by journalists who may or may not have a good level of expertise in the subject area they are covering. Third, most mainstream sources are commercial and many have a clear bias.

Podcasts, on the other hand, tend to be created by small groups or individuals (although more and more are being created by larger companies) who balance entertainment with information, are experts in the area they have decided to create podcasts about, and don’t have a strong commercial incentive in what they do.

Of course, other internet information sources like blogs – and I mean blogs which concentrate on providing accurate factual information rather than those (like mine) which mainly present opinions – are also good sources. I prefer podcasts simply for the convenience of being able to consume them while doing other stuff like driving, walking around, mowing the lawns, etc.

I think it’s inevitable that traditional news and information sources will continue to gradually decline in both number and quality. News rooms are being downsized to save money and as big business takes over it will inevitably emphasise profit over quality. The internet is probably the biggest cause of this decline (although some people debate that point) but luckily it is also the internet which can provide a solution.

Sure, look on the internet and some of the sources are truly awful but that is also the case with traditional sources. For example, a few years back a study showed that people who watch Fox News (a US channel mainly associated with the political right) are less well informed than people who don’t watch any news at all!

If people are determined to be ignorant on a topic (I could mention climate change as an example) they will find plenty of material supporting whatever state of ignorance they wish to attain on both the internet and other sources (more so in larger countries and not so much in New Zealand because we are too small to have many obviously biased sources). But if people want to really know the truth I would suggest that the highest quality internet sources are where to go.

But that’s the problem: how to tell what is good and what is bad. I believe Google is looking at a reliability and quality rating system for web sites. If that is well done (and in search most of what Google does is brilliant) then at least that will be a good tool for those who actually want to know the truth.

As for those who want to remain ignorant, maybe they will need an alternative search engine which takes them to sites which reinforce their ignorance. There’s already an example of a similar service. It’s an alternative to Wikipedia called “Conservapedia” which is described as a “Wiki encyclopaedia with articles written from a Christian fundamentalist viewpoint” – in other words, it’s full of lies.

Yeah, I know Wikipedia isn’t perfect, and neither are podcasts or blogs. But at least the best examples of those start from a perspective of wanting to present good information, unlike many of the options.

The internet isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we have.