What Happened to the News Media?

The question I heard being asked most often during the recent election was; what the hell happened to the media? The almost universal opinion of most people seems to be that just when we needed the media the most to keep us informed, discover the truth, to keep things rational, it failed us totally.

The media blithely rolled along, repeating all of the lies, the innuendo, the misinformation, deliberately pumped up phony scandals. It gleefully turned casual comments and jokes into derogatory and misleading memes. It pounced on every conspiracy it could find. It magnified the silly and the ridiculous into clickbait headlines. It leapt upon phony stories from satirical websites or fraudulent sources gleefully and unapologetically.

Instead of helping to solve problems, the media became the problem.

But did it didn’t. Not really.

We have this impression that the news media is supposed to be some kind of watchdog, that it’s supposed to only publish the truth, that it’s supposed to call our attention to corruption, lies, misleading information, to cast light into the dark places inhabited by politicians and corporations. It is this concept that some call the fourth estate, the idea that the news media is some kind of watchdog, a guardian..

But the news media has never been that. The news media has a long and sordid history of manipulating information, spreading misinformation, taking things out of context, and doing it deliberately. The media has helped to foster conflicts and even wars, destroy reputations of innocent people, manipulating public opinion… And if you don’t believe that, just start doing some research. A few minutes running searches on Google is all it takes to discover that what is going on today is nothing new.

I know a lot of people who are laying the blame for Trump’s rise to power on the media and its failure to accurately report the facts. And there are certainly valid reasons to criticize modern media. But it isn’t anything new. The media has always done this. Either for profit, to push some political agenda by the owners of the media outlet, to pander to politicians…

But the fake news stories, quotes taken out of context, attempts by biased owners to manipulate public opinion? That’s been going on for as long as there has been a media.

And as for who is to blame, well, it’s us, really. The media is in business for one reason, for the most part: to make money. And they’ve learned that the easiest, least expensive and most profitable thing to do is publish the garbage they publish. Because we buy it. We click on the clickbait headlines, we gulp down millions of words written about ridiculous celebrities who don’t matter in the slightest. We’d rather read about who got who pregnant or who got a breast enlargement or who is divorcing who, then about things that really matter.

So if you’re looking for someone to blame, it’s not the media. It’s us.

The Echo from Amazon

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-8-39-44-amI’ve been curious about the Echo from Amazon for a while now, and I finally broke down and bought one, suspecting that like most of the high tech gadgets I end up with, it would be an enormous disappointment. I’ve heard all the ridiculous hype, and in the vast majority of cases, ridiculous hype is exactly what the claims for these products turns out to be. But in the case of the Echo, well, it seems to pretty much live up to all of the hype. I’m having a lot of fun with this thing.

I didn’t really expect much from the Echo at first. About the only reason I bought it was because it’s supposed to be able to link to Amazon music and I have Amazon’s unlimited music service.

So this thing showed up on my doorstep two days ago and I get to work setting it up. Amazon doesn’t exactly make this easy. You apparently can’t just plug it in and turn it on. You have to download an app for an IOS or Android device, and use that to set it up. So right off the bat I’m irritated because I didn’t remember anything in the product descriptions that said you had to have a cell phone or tablet just to use the thing. It turns out that apparently you can activate it from a computer by going to a website. But Amazon never said that anywhere that I could see in the product description either. I didn’t find out about that until I was searching for answers to problems I was having.

I installed the app on my iPad, but not without some misgivings because the app has one of the worst reviewer ratings I’ve ever seen and the first five reviews on the app store claimed that the app either didn’t work at all or had major problems. This did not bode well, as they say.

Still, it did work, and setting it up wasn’t that difficult. The instructions in the app were fairly simple to follow, and after typing in passwords, linking it to my home WiFi network and all that fun stuff, it was up and running.

Now I’ve never had much luck with speech recognition systems in the past. Siri, for example, can’t seem to understand a word I say. I thought it was just me, but apparently she can’t figure out with my wife or sons say either.

The Echo, though, was an entirely different story. The default code word to get the Echo’s attention is Alexa. You say Alexa first, followed by what you want it to do. So I said “Alexa what’s the weather for tomorrow”. And a pleasant feminine voice told me what the weather was going to be.

Damn, this thing actually works?

I tried other requests, using my normal voice, normal pronunciation, at various levels of loudness, and… Well, damn, it just — just worked. The voice recognition on this thing is, for me anyway, amazingly good. And it worked even when the ambient noise levels were fairly high. I run air filters, fans, various equipment back here in the office, and it never seemed to have a problem understanding what I said, even when I was talking quietly.

What I bought it for, though, was easy access to music. I have Amazon’s unlimited music service (extra cost option for Prime members which claims to be able to stream “tens of millions of songs” for just eight bucks a month) and I’d never really used it for very much. So I started messing with the Echo and seeing what I could dig up.

So for giggles I said “Alexa play The Laughing Policeman”. And it did. Okay… Play songs by Al Jolson… And it did. Play the latest Katy Perry album. And it did. Play Court of the Crimson King, and it did. Apparently there really are tens of millions of songs in there.

But back to the Echo, because that’s what this is supposed to be about.

It can answer some questions, not all, but there is a significant amount of information linked into the system.

It’s linked into TuneIn, so it can live stream a large number of radio stations. It has the current weather and weather predictions for every place I’ve asked about. Can read me the news. It’s even linked to my Kindle library and can read my Kindle books that have the audio enabled.

It has other capabilities as well. It can set alarms, links to Google Calendar, and has other “skills” (i.e. capabilities you can add to the Echo via the Alexa app that are usually associated with spending more money, like buying stuff by voice)

This thing is impressive.

Problems? Well, sure, there are always problems.

The Alexa app gave me some problems. After I used it to initialize and set up the Echo, the app refused to re-connect to my Echo. Every time I started the App it would try to go through the entire setup procedure again.

After spending a significant amount of time trying to find answers to that problem, I resorted to the old standby, unplugging the Echo and plugging it back in. Bang, now the app worked fine.  once I got that sorted, the Alexa app has caused me no problems at all. If you bring it up it shows a list of voice commands the Echo received, what music you’ve used it to listen to, you can control the volume of the Echo with it, pause the Echo’s playback, other goodies like that.

The only other real issue I have is audio output. The built in speaker isn’t bad, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the speakers in a good stereo system. My big 1980s era Pioneer speakers are much, much better. Even my Bose system’s speakers are better. The Echo has 2 inch speakers, for pete’s sake. I don’t care how good the technology is, trying to get high fidelity sound out of a 2 inch tweeter and a 2.5 inch woofer… well, sorry.

But the Echo has no external audio output unless you resort to buying extra cost options from Amazon. None. Can’t even link bluetooth speakers to it. You’re stuck with the Echo’s built in speakers. If you want to hook up external speakers, the only option is to get something like the Tap or a Dot from Amazon.

The Tap is a battery operated speaker/microphone to listen to/control the Echo. But that will set you back $130, for crying out loud. You might as well spend the extra money and get another Echo for $180.

The other option is to get a Dot, a hockey puck sized gadget which will set you back $50. It seems to be a downsized version of the Tap. It is also battery operated and requires an external charger. The Dot will connect to an external bluetooth speaker or via a standard audio cable. And at $50 it’s a lot less than the Tap, but come on, really?

According to the Echo’s specifications, it has bluetooth capabilities built into it. It can link via bluetooth to receive audio from your phone or tablet, but it can’t send audio to an external speaker without you having to spend at least $50 for the Dot? Really? I’m sorry, I don’t believe that for a minute.

I should point out that the Echo’s speakers aren’t bad, even at high volume levels. Considering how small they are, they are pretty good. But even a mediocre external speaker system would do better.

Overall I’m surprisingly pleased with the Echo. The voice recognition system is amazingly good. The sound quality, while not outstanding, is acceptable for casual listening. It’s great for doing metric conversions like how many feet are in a meter and things like that. It can answer some questions. It does pretty good at math, too. It can give you the news, weather and sports. Ask it sports scores.

Mostly I use it for music and radio. It’s been able to play just about any radio station I want to hear.

Note: Some of the music services require you to have the Amazon unlimited music service. Other music is restricted to Amazon Prime accounts. So what you have access to via the Echo is going to vary depending on whether or not you’re in the Prime program, etc.

Junk Science Reporting Drives Me Crazy

It’s been a while since I had a good rant, so I’m going to indulge. Please feel free to skip this one if you like. I occasionally go off on a rant when I run into an especially irritating bit of so-called “journalism”, and this is one of those instances.

When I was going through my various news sources this morning while having my coffee, I ran across a news item at Motherboard, part of Vice.com, about Proxima Centauri and it’s newly discovered planet, b. You can click here to jump over and read it yourself. The headline reads: “Our Closest Earthlike Planet Appears to be Covered in Water”

As I read it I frowned a lot. I might go so far as to say I was seriously irked. Unless someone, somewhere, had come up with something entirely new and unexpected, what they were implying in this little piece was irresponsible and so lacking in any kind of facts that it was pure fiction.  And yes, they use weasel words like ‘could’, ‘possibly’, ‘may’. Technically the article doesn’t come right out and lie, but it is seriously misleading, perhaps deliberately so in order to generate clickbait headlines.

Let me give you some background for you non-astronomers out there. Proxima Centauri is the star closest to us. It is a very tiny and very dim red dwarf star about 4.2 light years away from Earth. While that is close in astronomical terms, in human terms it is very, very far away indeed. Light moves at 186,000 miles per second. Light takes 4.2 years to go from Earth to Proxima. I will leave it to you to figure out exactly how far that is. My calculator doesn’t have enough zeroes.

They recently discovered Proxima has a planet. They immediately gave it the amazingly creative name Proxima b. What we know about this new planet is, well, not much, really. We know it’s about 1.3 times the mass of the Earth. We know it’s between 0.9 and 1.44 times the diameter of the Earth. We know it orbits Proxima at a distance that is one tenth the distance of Mercury to our sun. We know how fast it goes around it’s star. We know it is tidally locked to it’s star. That means the same face of the planet is always facing the star. One side of the planet is in perpetual light, the other side is in perpetual dark.

Or I thought that’s all we knew until I saw this article. This article implies that B is covered with planet spanning oceans teaming with life. There’s liquid water everywhere, and because there’s water, there must be life! Oh my!

Now just a minute here. Really? I follow astronomy news fairly closely. If these discoveries had been made, why weren’t they all over the actual astronomical press? Something smells a wee bit odd here.

And here’s another thing that set off alarm bells. The quotes are all generic, never attributed to a specific person, but they instead use terms like “researchers said”, and “the research team said”, and “scientists concluded”. That kind of thing starts to set off alarm bells with me. It’s been my experience that legitimate news stories almost always give actual names, and if not the name of the person being quoted, at least the name of the press agent or the name of the spokesperson.

Then I started running into other rather odd things.

The Motherboard article posts a link to what supposedly was the original press release from the Marseille Astrophysics Laboratory which appeared in Agence Presse France, the French press agency. But when I click in the link, the APF’s website tells me there is no such story. So I started running searches on the APF’s news website, plugging in terms like Proxima, Proxima Centauri, Proxima B, the research group’s name, the university’s name, and found nothing. Not a single story anywhere on the APF’s website concerning Proxima’s planet, these researchers… Nothing. Unless I missed something, or wasn’t using the search engine properly, the story Motherboard quotes over at APF doesn’t exist according to APF. In fact, there is nothing anywhere on APF about Proxima at all that I could find after running extensive searches of its entire news site.

I freely admit that I might have been using their site wrong, was using their search engine wrong. So I did some more hunting for other related stories from other sources and found a lot of sciencey related popular websites with this same story. But all shared the same troubling traits. No actual names, vague references to universities and research organizations, quotes, again not from real people, but from “scientists” and “researchers.” Even more troubling, many of the stories in these websites were virtually identical, and I mean word for word identical in some cases, indicating that a lot of these places were engaging in good old fashioned cut and paste plagiarism.

I was getting increasingly obsessed with finding out what the hell was going on. Finally, I went to CNRS, the French science research organization, which supposedly was the source of all of this, and once I’d tracked down the actual original sources, I discovered what I had started to suspect already.

What the CNRS actually said about Proxima b bore little or no resemblance to what the media sources were claiming. What the CNRS actually said, if my horrible French and Google Translate haven’t failed me, is that we really know nothing about Proxima B except the few facts I already told told you about.  But that if you make a whole lot of assumptions that are probably wrong, and if those assumptions are correct, which they probably aren’t, and if the planet has an atmosphere, which we don’t know, and if the planet has a magnetic field, which we also don’t know, Proxima B might be capable of having liquid water, maybe even large amounts of it, and if it has water, which we don’t know, it might have a chance to develop some sort of life. Maybe. But we don’t really know.

This is considerably different from the Motherboard headline that says “Our Closest Earthlike Planet Appears to be Covered in Water”. In fact, I have yet to find any legitimate scientist of science organization that has said any such thing.

There is, in fact, no evidence that it has any water at all. There is no evidence it has an atmosphere. The only things we know about the planet at all are it’s approximate mass, it’s approximate size, it’s distance from its star, and it’s orbital period.

If you look at the actual facts, what we do know about Proxima Centauri and its planet, the preliminary data indicates exactly the opposite. Everything we know about it so far tends to contradict everything the Motherboard article claims is possible.

B is very, very close to it’s star. And while Proxima Centauri is a very small, very dim star, it is still a star. Even worse it is a flare star. That means it regularly blasts surrounding space with high intensity radiation and stellar mass ejections. This means that solar radiation and stellar mass ejections would have eroded away any atmosphere and water that the planet might have had billions of years ago.

Some people are trying to get around this fact by claiming B has a magnetic field strong enough to protect it from it’s star, a field similar to the one that protects Earth.

But not only is there no evidence at all to indicate it has a magnetic field, simple physics tells us it pretty much can’t have a magnetic field. A planet’s magnetic field is generated by the rotation of its molten iron core. But Proxima B doesn’t rotate. It’s tidally locked to it’s star. If it doesn’t rotate, it can’t have a magnetic field. Period.

Junk science reporting drives me crazy.

 

Reboots and Remakes

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Oh dear lord I’m so tired of the remakes and reboots…

But I suppose we should start with some definitions, shouldn’t we?

A remake is where they look at what was originally a perfectly fine, probably good, maybe even outstanding movie, and they just make the whole damned thing all over again for no good reason.

This is, of course, theft, but they call it homage so they get away with it.

But, well, why? I mean, really, why? The original was a fine movie, perhaps even excellent. Maybe even a true work of art. So why the hell remake it? Just watch the original, for heaven’s sake.

A reboot is something else again. A reboot takes a film idea and fundamentally alters it, transforms it totally. Basically it is the reboot maker saying the original was crap, the director was crap, the writers were crap, so I’m going to do it better. It is arrogant beyond belief. It’s the director and film makers claiming they can do it better. But everyone knows they can’t because if they had any creative talent at all, they’d be doing something original and not be digging through the archives looking for something to steal.

I call it theft because that’s what it is. Remakes and reboots are both essentially theft. Oh, sure, they legally own the rights, but it is still the taking of ideas that were not theirs to begin with.

It’s sort of like house robbery.

The remaker breaks into your house, steals your TV, but does the dishes for you, waters your plants and feeds the dog on the way you.

The rebooter breaks into your house, steals your TV, smashes your dishes, urinates in the potted plants and shoots your dog on the way out.