No snappy title this week…

My teenage years were a traumatic time of my life that I wish I could forget. I really remember  continually being picked on.  I was the prototypical geek. I loved reading and science and dreamt of being an engineer. However I was short, stocky, shy, awkward, and very slow to physically mature.  I had lots of other interests, most of them in common with all of the other teens around me, but it was my appearance that some decided to focus on.  I can admit to it now, though it still haunts me to this day, I was bullied.  It was one of the darkest times of my life. A time, where as a young man, I didn’t believe things would ever get any better.  Thankfully, my parents and friends recognized that I was having problems, and were able to steer me back onto a path of life that was brighter and  going to take a lot longer to travel than my teens.

When things did get bad, I had places to hide.  I could take solace in my books, or judo classes.  Even playing hockey was an escape since I played with kids from other neighbourhoods.  I was lucky.  Anonymity could still be obtained in my youth.  I can’t say the same for kids that are bullied today.  While I am sure physical abuse still carries on, it’s cyber-bullying that really terrifies me. You may never know who your attacker is, and as long as you have a digital presence anywhere in the world, the attacker can repeatedly go after you. Even deceive your friends into thinking you’re some bad person, influencing them to turn their backs on you when you need them the most.

With this being my last entry for 2013 I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t skim the surface of one of the worst side effects of the Internet.  Cyber-capping is one of the lowest forms of confrontation, and abuse someone can take.  Not only can the attacker demoralize and rip apart someone’s self-esteem, they can do this from the relatively safe comfort of their parent’s basement, while hiding behind the mask of anonymity.

These degenerate “lowlifes” troll the Internet looking for vulnerable teenagers that are sharing their lives through their webcams.  They sweet-talk and eventually persuade these kids into to doing things they wouldn’t normally do on camera, the victims believing these people are someone they can trust. The troll then captures the stream, or takes a screen shot and uses it later on to blackmail the teen into performing again and again with no end in sight. It’s an emotional downward spiral for this victim, and in today’s socially obsessed teens life, impossible to hide from.

I am not the first person at the table to talk about this situation, and I won’t be the last.  I don’t have any solutions to offer, nor should I, as I am not a parent myself. I do believe that teenage years are some of the most turbulent times a person will ever face.  Some breeze through, some struggle.  The only advice I can muster is to be educated. Parents, talk to your kids.  Friends, if you see your friend struggling talk to someone.  Get them help. Make as much noise about the problem as you can.  Stand up for those who are having a hard time standing up for themselves.

My inspiration for this week’s post was Amanda Todd.  If you familiar with this young woman’s story, you should click the link and watch the show that was posted by the CBC’s the fifth estate.  It’s an absolutely heart wrenching documentary on the hardships that Amanda faced after making one silly mistake while online one day.  In the end, Amanda took her own life.  Please, don’t let this happen to someone you care about.

Until next time
A Clockwork Techie

P.S. The Canadian government introduced Bill C-13 in an effort to combat this form of bullying.  While the bill still needs to be debated in Parliament it’s a start to help combat cyber-bullying within this country.

“Foiled again,” said Rob Ford

Quick! Take a picture! Use your phone! Let me see it! Ohhhhhhh I love it! I want to frame it! Send it to me, ok? These are words that I am sure passed Rob Ford’s lips, and will forever regret.

The advent of the high-megapixel camera in most of today’s mobile phones has brought in a staggering revolution in photography. Ten percent of all photos ever taken happened in the past year [source]. Four percent of all the photos ever taken reside on Facebook [source]. These numbers floor me. So many moments are being captured and preserved for the rest of time. So, does that mean that there are that many more incredible photographers now?

Well, take a moment and look at all the photos you’ve posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the social media sites and think about how many of them you’ve printed, framed, and hung on your wall (the one in your house) to share. How many of those photos do you think are iconic? Do they transcend time and place? That’s where I see a large fault in the continuation of a the digital hoarder mentality that we all seem to be developing.

I am a product of the traditional school of photography. I was taught proper composition, lighting, perspective, and critiquing. I learned how to use film, how to develop the spent roll in the dark. How to create my own prints using negatives and an enlarger. Sounds like a lot of work, huh? It was, however in the end it taught me to take my time and to realize that photography was an art. I knew that those iconic images that have stood the test of time.  It took time, maybe not to capture, but to produce the final product.

The downside to traditional photography was the upfront cost. Camera bodies, lenses, film, developing; it all came with an exorbitant cost. Digital photography reduced a large chunk of that cost. While camera manufacturers still charge high dollars for their most advanced camera bodies and lenses, those are one-time expenses. Once you own the parts, the rest is cake so to speak. No longer do you have to buy chemicals, mixing buckets, or fabricate a dark room to see the results of your photos. The results are instantaneous.

Digital photography has brought accessibility to the masses. Almost anyone can take a picture of anything at any time, which overall is wonderful. I know as a trained photographer, having my 8 megapixel camera phone in my pocket at all times is great for capturing that spur of the moment image. However what I am seeing is a trend of people using this great tech for the mundane. Do you really think that posting an image of your new toenail colour is a something that needs to be preserved? Even worse is that you stepped out of the nail salon, stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, put your foot up on the bumper of a parked car to take the picture! Was it really THAT important?

As I mentioned before, four percent of all photos ever taken are now on Facebook. I would really like to know what percentage of those photos is actually worth keeping over time? Which ones would you want in a photo album that is placed on your shelf that anyone could pick up and look at? I don’t mean the embarrassing or compromising images, that should never have been posted in the first place, but the images that you took while on vacation, or of your wedding, or your baby’s first day home. Do you think they should be captured on your Motorola Razr or that great iPhone you always have on you? Or should you maybe use a product that is specifically created to capture these images?

I am not trying to sell you a camera, or to get you to spend oodles of money on something you are only going to use on occasion. What I am asking you to do is consider why you’re taking the picture. What you’re taking that picture of. Think about the situation and wonder if it’s really appropriate to capture that moment with your Android device. Iconic Selfies?

The old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” is so very true. Keep that in mind the next time you start taking hundreds of photos of that new set of shoelaces you just bought, or decide to stop in for a quick bite at that neighbourhood crack house.

Until next week
A Clockwork Techie

“There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”

While Pierre Elliot Trudeau, then Justice Minister, was addressing the outdated criminal codes dealing specifically with homosexuality, I feel believe that this ideological sentiment could be applied to a greater idea of digital privacy.  The idea of being interconnected with anyone who wants to be on the Internet anywhere around the world is absolutely amazing, but I don’t think giving up my right to have a private relationship with that person should be sacrificed for the benefit of governments and corporations.

As one of my communications professors continuously reminds us, WE are Facebook’s products, and our personal information is sold to the highest bidder.  They gather large amounts of data on billions of individuals, in greater detail than our national census, and we move along like lambs to the slaughter.  We knowingly and voluntarily give up this information and don’t question, or simply don’t care what is being done with our digital lives.  It’s all fun and games to share goofy information, or to list where you’re worked or gone to school, but it’s this information that allows corporations to target your consumer needs.

This is a small part of a bigger problem with our eroding privacy.  Digital life brings new concerns.  It’s not just social media companies selling aggregate information, but governments and other formal bodies that are using whatever loopholes they can to spy on our digital lives and activities.  We used to seal letters with wax and a coat of arms to detect if messages had be tampered with, now governments are forcing companies who have secure messaging systems to hand over their encryption keys so they can track every word we pass along around the world.  No longer are we presumed innocent, we are presumed guilty the moment we touch a keyboard.

Individually we are to blame for this situation.  5 billion of us have acted like lemmings and gleefully stepped off the edge of the cliff while taking pictures being sure to tag all our friends all before we hit the ground.  I don’t ever remember growing up with this overly excessive desire to share every little detail of my life, but I’m old and out of touch, I suppose.  I just can’t see this open sharing, that is out there for as long as the Internet exists, won’t come back to haunt today’s youth.  Most social media outlets offer some level of privacy controls, however if you don’t implement them then it’s your own damn fault that your friends can post and tag you in that video of you in a drunken stupor getting a tattoo of the one foot tall My Little Pony in leather chaps with the name of your favourite professor written across the saddle.

It is still illegal for the Canadian Government to open our mail unless there is an obvious issue with the letter, like a funny looking powder or a ticking sound emanating from the package.  So, what gives our government a greater right to view our email?  How is that level of communication any different?  Email companies like the now defunct Lavabit used to offer a completely encrypted email service that, at the time, was impossible to circumvent.  It so frustrated the American Government that they try to force the company to hand over its encryption keys.  They must have really wanted access to that My Little Pony video.

I would dare to say that most of our daily lives here in North America have now been transferred into the digital realm in one form or another.  Whether it be banking, healthcare, job search, or even job interviews, why should we as private citizens not be offered the same sense of privacy that was afforded us when all of these things were done in the brick and mortar world?  I truly love the simplicity of doing my banking online, or paying for my purchases using a debit card instead of carrying cash around, but the idea of a government or corporation tracking and using this information to either bias their marketing or possibly give cause to flag all my purchases because I may be building an explosive device with that fertilizer that I bought for my vegetable garden sends shivers up my spine.

In the end, be careful with your online presence.  In the today’s world where the word privacy will become extinct much like an honest politician, it may be best to start limiting your digital footprint.  Go Green, digitally green that is.

This post is being published on Remembrance Day here in Canada, so please let’s give pause to remember the men and women who have sacrificed their lives to preserve our way of life as Canadian and as private citizens.

Until next week
A Clockwork Techie

What we have here is a failure to communicate (WARNING: Rant ahead)

As I sit on my couch and watch the ongoing Senate hearings here in Canada, I can’t help but think that Mike Duffy must wish he was actually Patrick Duffy on the TV series Dallas so many years ago.  He truly wants to step into a shower and pretend this is all just a bad dream.

I stole the title of this blog from the movie Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman.  While the statement is directed at Luke, who’s incarcerated in a rural prison, I think it so aptly applies to today’s politicians.   Politicians used to be held to a higher standard.  They were our representatives in this continually growing nation.  However recent events both at the federal and civic levels of politics has led me to be believe that we the citizens are going to have step up and force these duly elected officials back to that higher standard.  I am saddened by the fact that this idea has even had to cross my mind.  This, however, is where I believe social media can actually come in handy and play a large role in helping keep politicians honest and transparent.

Today’s politicians seem to feel less responsibility towards the people that elected them.   I really feel this is a situation that all citizens should be aware of.  We have a responsibility to remain educated on what politicians are doing while representing us on the national and local front.  We need to be involved.  We are the ones that elected them to office.  Ignorance cannot be our excuse for not knowing what is going on in this country.  So let’s use social media and technology to our advantage as citizens.

For starters, I think that every elected official needs to maintain a weekly blog. I want a current up to date list of every motion and bill they voted on, how they voted, and why they voted the way they did.  Did they ask for input from their constituency, or were they whipped into place?  They need to be held accountable for their actions and the only way I can think of this happening is through the use of social media, creating an open digital log for everyone to read.  Let’s put Foursquare too good use and have them check in at every new location they arrive at each and every day. They also need to tweet and post their status on Facebook.

To be clear, I don’t mean having staffers put out carefully crafted statements about a private members bill that their bosses are supporting.  I mean the politician has to do the daily posting, and they have to tell us everything.  Let’s have them show what transparency is really about.  I want to know how much they spent on dinner since they are paying for these things with my hard-earned money.

I think that every email sent to another minister, or member of the press needs to be posted.  All moves need to be accounted for.  Plausible deniability should no longer be allowed. However, we the citizens have to play a part in this new dynamic.  We would have to keep track of these people.  Scan, read, cross-reference, and comment on anything we think is out of place.  Look at their Facebook check-ins and follow up.  I know this all sounds a little like Big Brother in reverse, but something has to change.

A level of political scandal that this country hasn’t seen for a while is driving this rant.  While there are ongoing civic issues in Winnipeg, Montreal, and Toronto, the national scandals, most recently in the Senate, have grown to a fevered pitch here in Canada.  I think it’s time to have ALL elected officials socially state every move they make.

This of course is all tongue-in-cheek, however we need to grow our awareness of what’s happening in this nation.  I think that national political apathy has grown not only because of a lack of great leaders, but these days the politicians are so good at controlling the media and the message that the truth is not getting to the people.   This is where technology and the Internet can help the citizens of this country.  Politicians are using new media to help dominate the news cycle.  They are also using it to help garner popular opinion by skipping the gatekeepers or filters of the big media outlets.  It is now up to us to act as those filters.  Use the Internet to research all political statements.   Be sure to cultivate your opinion through the facts, not a single politically manipulated point-of-view.

We have the ability these days to be as knowledgeable as our leaders.   Let’s take up that responsibility and be better citizens of this nation.

A hat tip to my classmates for this weeks title.

Until next week
A Clockwork Techie

Wow, I think my heart actually fluttered

I was starting to believe that nothing about consumer technology could really excite me anymore.  New smartphones and wearable computers just don’t excite me like they used to.  I’ve started to think it may be my age.  I know that as you get older, things just don’t work like they used to, at least not without pharmaceutical help.  Today was different.  My interest was piqued.  I was sitting up straight.  Paying attention to every little detail.  My age did not feel like a factor anymore.

So what captured my attention so vigorously?  It wasn’t a new computer, or a world changing killer application.  No, it was something as old as time.

I was sitting at my desk, working on an assignment, and had the Apple press event streaming in the background.  I didn’t feel it needed my full attention since these gatherings have become very boring and predictable.  Gone are the days of Steve Jobs saying “just one more thing!”  There are no more surprises, no more gasps from the audience, until this day.

Tim Cook and colleagues had run through the gamut of refreshed hardware and software lines including their workhorse operating system OS X.  Mavericks, the newest operating systems nom de plume, was being given its normal run through, with discussion of specs and performance enhancements, and I was listening out of one ear until Mr. Cook said the one thing that always makes me sit up and take notice.  “Mavericks will be FREE!”  I was gobsmacked.

To be fair, Apple hadn’t been charging large sums of money for the past three updates, but to offer a full operating system that can be installed on many legacy models for free is quite a business feat.  Not only will it allow people who have been financially unable to update their computer, schools and large business facilities that have been holding off because of cost, will be able to get their workstations up-to-date for the cost of labour alone.  It may look like financial suicide on the surface, but I truly believe there is a monetary brilliance to it.

I am going to assume that Apple makes a hefty amount of money annually from commissions on all the apps sold through either the Mac App Store, the Mac OS application purchasing portal, or the iOS AppStore found on all iOS devices.  Those commissions could offset the OS purchasing loss alone.  This wasn’t what I felt was the most interesting part of the Mavericks scheme.

If Apple can update all, or most of the still-operating Macs in the world, they will give every machine on the Internet access to the Mac App store.  Viola! In the blink of an eye, if you have a really fast Internet connection and you only blink once in the time it takes to download 5 gigabytes, Apple can vastly increase its purchasing base.  What an economic coup.  I do wonder what the Apple software developers’ thought of this move.

They no doubt put a lot of effort into this new OS.  Suffered, sacrificed, gave all of themselves to only have their bosses give this effort away for free.  I’d find this very disheartening.  Although I am sure they are telling themselves that it’s much better than working behind the Genius Bar at their local Apple retailer.

This event has left me wondering who Apple feels they are in competition with to take such a measure as to give away their operating system for free.  In a tuaw.com article I read later on that week, Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, said that even though Mavericks is free, it’s not open source and very strongly tied to Apple specific hardware.  He’s right; the OS isn’t going to take over all of the PCs in the world.  Still has me wondering what the next step will be for Apple.

Until next week,
A Clockwork Techie

I will never be Jimmy Page

Lately I have been taking the piss out of technology.  I have been doing this for the sole purpose of shining a light on what I believe is technology’s insidious penetration into areas better off left untouched.  I may sound bitter and angry and that I might set off a giant electromagnetic pulse around the world bringing the digital world back to zero, however nothing can be further from the truth.  I don’t hate technology I love it.

It is a hard statement to prove from within a blog, however let me try.  The following is a list of modern day tech that I own and use on a daily basis: a tablet computer, a smartphone, a laptop computer, a desktop computer, a streaming video device, and a flat panel TV.  I’d like to say they aren’t essential to my life and for the most part that is true, however I am an information junkie.  I would go off the deep end if I didn’t have access to the Internet in one form or another.   Whenever I’ve had questions over the past 20 years, the Internet has been there to nurture and direct my little boy nature to always ask the question “Why?” but I digress.

Last week I talked about how technology is ruining popular music, and I stand by that belief, however I should qualify that by saying there have been changes in music tech that have benefitted my personal musical development.  I had mentioned Apple Garageband, but another item in my musical arsenal that I absolutely love for it’s technological integration is my Squier® iOS Stratocaster.

It’s a simple, entry-level, solid body electric guitar built by Fender®.  It has a clean sound, is easy to play, and stays in tune for a long time.  It comes in a standard sunburst finish and shaped in the classic Fender Strat profile.  It has a ¼ inch output that allows me to plug into any amp or effects rack.  Standard tone and volume knobs that control the neck, mid, and humbucker bridge pickups.  These can also be mixed with the 5-way selector switch.  To me, these are important qualities in an electric guitar.

The really cool thing about this guitar is that the pickups are wired to a digital output.  The built in mini-USB port it allows me to plug the guitar directly into my computer, smartphone, or tablet all without any special pre-amps or other interface devices.  This is great for recording spur of the moment riffs, or playing around with different digital effects racks without ever having to leave my chair.  I can sound like Jimmy Page one moment, or Joe Strummer the next all with the click of a mouse.

One of the really fun things this guitar has allowed me do is play along with songs that I love.  I have been able to find multi-track recording stems online that can be imported into an application like Garageband.  I can then plug my guitar into the computer, create my own guitar track, and play along and record my own version of the song.  It’s a lot of fun and great practice as well.

Overall, the Squier iOS Strat is a fun, inexpensive, and well-built guitar that uses the right combination of old and new world technology.  It allows the amateur and professional alike to play around with their musical inspiration in any situation, as long as there is room for you, the guitar, and a smartphone.

You can find the specs for the guitar here, http://www.fender.com/features/usb-strat/

Until next week,
A Clockwork Techie

To bad it wasn’t seven cents change

“No matter how hard you may try, you’ll never be a good singer”.  That’s what most of the popular music artists these days should be told.  “You suck so get over it.  Making music isn’t for everyone”.  Instead they are told, “That was great!  We will clean it up with the computer.  You will look great on the video!”  It’s a crying shame.

Do you want to know how popular music should sound in this era of digital music?  Listen to Jack White.  In January of this year I was watching the Jack White episode of Austin City Limits on PBS.  I was blown away by the musicianship of Mr. White and his two different accompanying bands.  I was really enjoying the show, but it took me a couple of minutes to realize he was playing music of his latest album Blunderbuss.

My lack of recognition didn’t stem from poor rhythm, singing out of key, or the bands lack of enthusiasm.  I realized that they were performing different arrangements of the same songs.  It was astounding.  They were just as exciting, and engaging but completely different from the recorded album I had been listening too on a regular basis.  This is what musicianship is all about.

Do you think that today’s pop artists could do the same thing?  I don’t.  I really, really don’t.  I think whatever singing talent they may have, is completely fabricated and manipulated.  Their songs could not be easily translated into other arrangements, or musical genres without a team of writers and directors to fall back on.  Without the help of modern computers and high-end editing software there would be nothing musical about the final output.

Popular music has been infected by technology.  Auto-tune, multiple tracks, non-linear editing, looping tracks have taken average singers and made them pop stars.  They are not what I’d call true musicians.

It’s not that the river of popular music doesn’t ebb and flow, or that one hit wonders has never existed till now.  It’s that they are all the same.  There is no sound, vocal, or musical hook that sets todays bands apart (and I use the term band very loosely).  There’s no soul.  It’s like an out of tune tambourine.  Shaken, but not very well.

I recently watch the documentary Sound City directed by Dave Grohl.  Sound City was a music studio in Van Nuys, California that produced some the seminal rock albums of all times.  Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, Tom Petty’s Dam the Torpedos, and one of the biggest selling albums of all times, Nirvana’s Nevermind.  However the documentary was not about the music was produced at the studio, but how it was produced.  It was all done with analog mixing boards and reel-to-reel tape recorders.  No digital tomfoolery.  It took more time to record an album.  It meant that the musicians had to know their parts.  However the music that came out of that studio had soul.

Sound City however fell to the digital audio state and was sold off in 2011.  Computer technology had become so invasive that it took down one of the great halls of musical brilliance.  One of the great moments of the film was in an interview with John Fogerty.  He and a young musician had been comparing notes on their recording experiences.  Mr. Fogerty had asked how much time he spent practicing before going into the studio.  The young musician replied that he didn’t need to because the computers allowed him to fix all his mistakes on the fly.  There was no such thing as capturing a song in a single take anymore.

Now there is a flip side to modern technology and music recording.  Setting up a simple, economic home recording studio has become easier than ever.  As an example, I have Apple Garageband and a simple USB 3 device pre-amp.  Why is this great?  Well, not all of us want to be pop stars.  I liken my recordings to putting poems down on paper.  It’s my way of keeping a record of some creative thought I may have had.

It’s also much more affordable than trying to rent studio time to put together sample recordings for up and coming bands, or cover bands trying to book gigs at local establishments.  These recordings don’t need to be perfect, but clear enough to give a good representation of what the band is about.

Okay, that’s my technological rant for this week

Till next time,
A Clockwork Techie