Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Five years after the Tsunami

Boxing Day was the fifth anniversary of the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. With the fuss we're experiencing over increased airline security and difficulties caused by it for travelers, it's worth remembering that there are more serious things out there.

The Big Picture, one of my favourite photo blogs, looked back at the Tsuname, five years on, and had pictures of what is happening now in the countries where it caused such devastation.

Here's the link.

Update: I had the wrong date originally. It was Boxing Day 2004, not Dec. 29.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kim Peek, Inspiration for ‘Rain Man,’ Dies at 58

In the wake of Christmas fun, you might have missed this story that appeared on Boxing Day.

Kim Peek, who was the inspiration for the character Dustin Hoffman made famous in Rain Man, died at the age of 58.

Peek's story is fascinating and this obituary in the New York Times does a good job of telling it:
Almost all documented savants — people with an extraordinary depth of knowledge and the ability to recall it — have been restricted in their expertise to specific fields like mathematics, chess, art or music. But Mr. Peek had a wide range of interests and could instantly answer the most arcane questions on subjects as diverse as history, sports, music, geography and movies.

“He was the Mount Everest of memory,” Dr. Darold A. Treffert, an expert on savants who knew Mr. Peek for 20 years, said in an interview.

Mr. Peek had memorized so many Shakespearean plays and musical compositions and was such a stickler for accuracy, his father said, that they had to stop attending performances because he would stand up and correct the actors or the musicians.

“He’d stand up and say: ‘Wait a minute! The trombone is two notes off,’ ” Fran Peek said.

Mr. Peek had an uncanny facility with the calendar.

“When an interviewer offered that he had been born on March 31, 1956, Peek noted, in less than a second, that it was a Saturday on Easter weekend,” Dr. Treffert and Dr. Daniel D. Christensen wrote about Mr. Peek in Scientific American in 2006.

They added: “He knows all the area codes and ZIP codes in the U.S., together with the television stations serving those locales. He learns the maps in the front of phone books and can provide MapQuest-like travel directions within any major U.S. city or between any pair of them. He can identify hundreds of classical compositions, tell when and where each was composed and first performed, give the name of the composer and many biographical details, and even discuss the formal and tonal components of the music. Most intriguing of all, he appears to be developing a new skill in middle life. Whereas before he could merely talk about music, for the past two years he has been learning to play it.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

Distilling the debate on climate change

If you're like me, you might be a bit confused about what exactly is everyone arguing about when it comes to climate change?

If you watch Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, things look pretty clear. But then you read a story demanding that Gore's Academy Award should be revoked because the film is all smoke and mirrors.

For most of us, the debate becomes the story - not the facts or allegations themselves. Fortunately, there are people who like to get at the facts of the argument and present them in a way that we can understand.

Here then, from the Information is Beautiful website are the arguments for and against global warming, presented in a straightforward, well-researched and easily understood format.

UPDATE - has looked closely at the "Climategate" issue in this article. Same conclusions.

- via Daring Fireball

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The book is not going away but it will change

stacks-711918.jpgThe days just after Christmas are a traditional reading time around our house. Most of us get one or more books in our stocking and it's nice to curl up and read.

This year, the e-book is the talk of the town and there are lots of predictions that the book as we know it is doomed. I don't buy it. It's way too efficient and pleasurable to ever go away. But there's no denying that the dollars and sense of the publishing business are dictating changes to come.

So it was a pleasure to find this article at about what the book might become:
The first movie cameras were used to film theater productions. It took early cinematic geniuses like Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin and Abel Gance to untether the camera from what was and transform it into what it would become: a new art form. I believe that this dynamic will soon be replayed, except it will star the book in the role of the theater production, with authors acting more like directors and production companies than straight wordsmiths. Like early filmmakers, some of us will seek new ways to express ourselves through multimedia. Instead of stagnant words on a page we will layer video throughout the text, add photos, hyperlink material, engage social networks of readers who will add their own videos, photos, and wikified information so that these multimedia books become living, breathing, works of art. They will exist on the Web and be ported over to any and all mobil devices that can handle multimedia, laptops, netbooks, and beyond. (Hey, Apple, are you listening?)
Sounds good, doesn't it?

While I still plan to be curling up with pages and ink, I am looking forward to what's to come. I've got an iPhone and I love it. And I can see the possibilities for that platform. And with all the buzz about the new tablets, etc. that are on the way, the future for readers looks very, very good.

Happy reading.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Regret the error

I am fond of warning clients that we're entering a new era - you can't lie! If you do, you will be caught - if not now then later.

I argue that rather than "spinning" an issue, just tell the truth. Getting the true story out in your own words is always better than admitting it after someone else calls you out.

That's one of the reasons I like this time of year when people start compiling their year-end lists of things. One of my favourites is Regret the Error which tracks the media's screw-ups over the past year.

See which ones you remember and think about how things could have been handled differently.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The spam attraction

What is it about spam that keeps it coming back, time after time?

"Do people really fall for the stuff that comes across their computer screen" is a question I'm asked a lot. Anyone who uses a computer will end up seeing a lot of crap that they didn't ask for and often have no idea why they're getting it.

The simple answer is that no, the people that sent those messages don't really expect anyone to buy their organ enhancer, or the pills that will do miraculous things. They just want to grab your attention for a split second - just long enough to slip a mailicious bit of software into your machine, so they can use it without your knowledge to send other people the same messages.

Those programs are called Trojan Horses (see this Wikipedia article for an explanation) and they're the computer hackers basic building blocks.

But I didn't start this post to tell you about how malicious software might end up on your computer, although it's a fascinating area for study. What I was wondering was whether any of you are starting to see more and more spam appearing on your Skype connections?

I've been using Skype for many years and I rarely had problems with receiving unexpected contacts from people I didn't know. I'd leave the program running in the background on my computer and pretty much forget about it.

But just lately, it seems that I've been spending a lot of time blocking meaningless contact messages from companies and people that I know nothing about. Many of these messages offer to sell me something, or invite me to visit their website to register for something.

I'm not sure what's going on. I suspect that following up on any of these offers would be a bad thing, as it always is in these cases. But every so often, it seems that a spammer somewhere figures out a way to get past the usual filters and starts flooding the Internet with junk. Sooner or later, the blocking software will catch up with them and we won't see any more of that particular piece of spam. But more will take its place.

I'm noticing this increase today because I so rarely see much spam anymore. I run all of my email, both incoming and outgoing, through Google Mail, which seem to have the most efficient spam filters I've ever had the pleasure of using.

I've been using Google as a route for my email for several years now and I've gotten used to never seeing a piece of spam for weeks on end. That doesn't mean I'm not receiving them. It's just that Google's filters are good at weeding them out of my inbox. Just today, I went and checked my Spam folder. I've received over 4100 items in the last 30 days. Today, I appear to have received almost 100 new ones, many of them two or three times.

But here's what's even more impressive. I've been checking my spam folder every day for about a week and I have yet to find a single piece of legitimate mail in there. Whatever kind of magic algorithms Google has cooked up to separate the good from the bad, it's working. And I continue to be impressed.

If you're getting more spam than you'd like, you should give serious consideration to routing your mail through Google's servers. It's a good way to stop spam. And as a bonus, you always have a complete backup copy of every email you've received, sent and deleted for as long as you've been sending that mail through Google. And you can find anything in seconds by using their tremendous search function.

If you'd like to set up your own version of spam-free email but you don't know how to use Gmail, drop me a line. I'd be happy to show you how easy it is to set yourself up.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The story behind the story

If you're like me, you like to read the details about news stories after the initial fuss has died down. Walking through the whole thing with a talented guide is always interesting and usually ends up helping with your own writing.

Perhaps you came across a recent story that got a bit of buzz in the mainstream media. The story was called Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages, by Julia Angwin and Geoffrey A. Fowler. It appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The bulk of the story is behind the paywall.

The gist of the story is that according to some research done as part of a doctoral thesis, Wikipedia is losing editors at a tremendous rate. That's how the story played out in most papers that carried some version of the story.

Doc Searls is one of those media guides I mentioned. In a blog post yesterday, he looked at the initial story and then dug deeper. He also went through a lengthy analysis prepared by Wikipedia itself that put the findings into context.

He winds up his piece with a bit of a personal note by telling us about his own experience as a Wikipedia editor.

It's a great read and by the end of it, I feel like I have a better idea of how the story developed and what it really means. I like that.

Who are the people who help you find the story behind the story?