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Saturday, 11 October 2014

Truth, respect and social media: The Bianchi case study

[Short link to this article if you need it - http://goo.gl/cGB8FP - or retweet me]

This article contains links that some people may object to - you have the choice whether to click them

At the time of writing this Formula 1 driver Jules Bianchi has been taken unconscious to hospital in an ambulance after his Marussia Formula 1 car collided with a yellow crane/digger which was trying to move Adrian Sutil's Sauber out of the way after the both aquaplaned off the track on consecutive laps at the same point.

The initial reaction on twitter was "What's going on?" when the medical car came out of the pits along with the safety car which had come out to slow the race down (it was stopped shortly after). What wasn't visible on the live stream was that it wasn't for Sutil's accident - it wasn't shown that Bianchi had gone off too, although some on screen graphics showed Bianchi's name against the long distance view where only Sutil's car was visible, and there were quite a few views of the Marussia team being shown. The broadcasters had, understandably, decided not to show any footage they had of Bianchi's crash or the medical staff working on him. The statement in full is available on formula1.com.

But what of social media? Awash with frenzy, people were trying to decipher what had happened. There were photos of a helicopter, supposedly carrying Bianchi to hospital, taking off. It turns out that they took him via ambulance instead, as per my introduction. This immediately started a discussion on social media. Why aren't they using the helicopter to transport him? Why hadn't the race directors race stopped the race if the weather wasn't good enough to allow the helicopter to fly? What really happened? The inevitable outrage had begun.

You have to take a step back. The people in charge have been doing this for a long time, and the public have to rely on them to make the right decisions based on the information they have. If the weather suddenly changes (and it did deteriorate on the day which lead to both drivers skidding off) then you can be caught out. It's almost impossible to keep a race going in adverse weather conditions if you throw a red flag at the possibility of the helicopter not being able to take off. We have to trust the judgement of the officials and medics who have FAR more information available to them that we do on the local weather, the transport, and the condition of the patient.

In addition to that there was quite a bit of heated discussion about pictures being posted and reposted on social media. The Telegraph posted a picture of the teams working on his car after the crash and got a lot of flack for it (Reference link with the photo), Parcel company DHL make a post inviting people to "Like" the post to show their support (reference article) and while they weren't asking people to like DHL's page, it is "free publicity" to DHL to get people to engage with their page. Just ultimately not in the way they'd have wanted.

The other controversy was that many people, once the photos started to come out, had started tweeting pictures (such as the Telegraph one) and, ultimately, the video clip of the crash. This caused a lot of people to object and say "Don't post them" (Ex-F1 presenter for the BBC Jake Humphreys was one of them) or "I'm unfollowing anyone who posts them" and similar. I can understand such reactions but you have to remember we're in an age of social media. Sharing things is what happens on social media and you have to accept that. It's a good thing for the world to have no (other than illegal items) restrictions placed on shares. It allows censorship to be bypassed, and I view anyone telling others not to post things is attempting to invoke censorship. There have been documentaries showing fatal crashes on TV in the past and I don't recall any outcry about those being broadcast. The difference is that these things are coming out shortly after the accident when emotions are high and the outcome is still in the balance. I do, however, agree with the broadcasters for not forcing it on people's screens in HiDef detail (the reminds me of the opening scene of Swordfish) while the outcome wasn't certain. The point is, viewing it should be a choice. There was a video posted with a crash of Kevin Ward Jr which killed him earlier this year too (reference article - includes video) and I now at least one person who wasn't keen to watch that but saw the Bianchi one.

When you see a link you have the choice of whether to click it (with images it can be harder since many social media clients will automatically show you them) and I think "responsible tweeting" is about, at the very least, informing people when you're posting something that includes a link that might be hard for followers to look at. That's respect for your audience. I can't help feel that unfollowing/blocking people who share content you object to is a bit like, to use an idiom, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A couple of pieces of objectional content doesn't make their whole feed pointless. On social media you'll never have the same opinions as others, and in fact following people with other views just makes you more accepting of other views and makes it easier not to have tunnel vision on things, or to only see a one-sided view of an issue promoted by the media. I accept it, take it on board, and move on. So I wouldn't unfollow someone just because they'd tweeted something objectionable - even if pictures of an critically injured person were involved - in the same way as I wouldn't unfollow someone just because my opinion was different. Social media allows the people to bypass the press "filtering" and post more or less whatever they like. And that's overall a good thing. A side effect of that is that facts will often come out over social media first.

Do people want to watch Bianchi's video to see someone get hurt? Of course not (well not in most cases I assume) but for Formula 1 fans who've seen all the safety improvements it's a way of understanding where there may be holes in the safety procedures. If the pictures/videos weren't out there, then the FIA would be making decisions behind closed doors, and then the public would judge them for their decisions without knowing the facts of what happened. Putting the videos out there means we can understand what happened, and understand why any subsequent decisions were taken, and potentially open up discussions to other ideas. I believe it's a good thing. Engagement and sharing is what makes social media useful (as long as it's kept to a vague level of facts).

And "facts" is the issue. As I mentioned facts can often come out of social media before any reputable organisation but so do a lot of misrepresented/false information as "facts". The Bianchi crash video says everything you need to know about the accident in a way no 140-character tweet, biased to the posters opinions, could ever do. If you can stick to referenced truths (and the one problem with twitter is the lack of attribution of facts - an issue I blogged about some time ago - I wish people wouldn't share images without the source).

The crash video is hard to watch. I won't shove it in anyone's face by inlining it into this page so it's your choice whether to click the link and open it. Seriously, do not click this if you're easily upset: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d052iSUkSY0.

But please don't unfollow me for wanting to see and understand the truth about what happened to allow me to form my own personal opinions.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

"Being watched by google" and missing the point of Facebook's messenger scandal

[Short link to this article if you need it - http://goo.gl/pVdsoM - or retweet me. This article is a useful collection of links I've gathered for myself as much as being a blog article for others!]

The Facebook messenger app that was introduced appears to have generated quite a bit of controversy. Facebook split out the messaging functionality into a separate app from the main one and blocked the main one's ability to manage private messages, this effectively forcing people to install the new app to keep their existing functionality.
Not inherently a problem in itself, but it seemed to stir up a bit of controversy about the permissions that the application had. It wanted access to your camera and microphone. How could that be. The level of outrage seemed to reach fever pitch on some parts of the internet about how having acces to that meant that they could spy on you and record everything you're doing. It got ridiculous, and the media didn't help - I saw this appearing via a share in my facebook feed:






HOW TERRIBLE. WE SHOULD ALL STOP USING FACEBOOK!!!


Well, yes there are plenty of reasons to stop using facebook which I'll get into later, but this really isn't one of them. And if he's a "tech expert" he needs to be fired for scaremongering. In fact the issues raised in there are applicable to the permissions that the original facebook app already had, so you'd better stop using that and several others too if you're going to avoid messenger:

 Let's use a common sense critique:
  1. These permissions are requested for the app because facebook allows you to take pictures/video and send them with your messages. In the case of the main facebook app, there's a recent new - OPTIONAL - feature that allows it to listen in the background to detect and post what you're watching/listening to. Even the scandal-inducing Daily Mail didn't really seem to have a problem with it. I use a separate app that does something similar to post what I'm listening to to last.fm when I'm at a venue playing music. It's a nice thing to have.
  2. Facebook are quite open about the function that makes use of the camera/microphone (if you're still wondering why, then here's the - entirely reasonable - official response to the concerns), but what about other apps that you use? Do you know the company behind them? If there's a chance they're a scammer or have other sinister intentions do you check them out in the same way you would when criticising a large company like Facebook? Surely that's where the real danger is - with the lone developer who might be trying to steal your identity or take other things from you.
  3. If Facebook really was trying to snoop in on your microphone or send pictures back to base, you'd see a significant amount of background data usage in the app (other than any auto-playing videos). This simply doesn't happen, so the scare stories are just that.
  4. So we established in point 1 that there are legitimate features in apps that require use of those device features, but what if you didn't want to use those features and wanted to block access to, say, the microphone, or your photos stored on the phone? Apps tend to be installed with an "all or nothing" way of operating. What worries me is that Google tested an Android feature for selectively blocking app permissions via an "App Ops" setting menu in Android 4.3 but then pulled it (actually they claimed they'd put it in accidentally) but if you want to find someone to really have a go at about security and potentially allowing spying, maybe the OS vendors such as Google should be your target... (NOTE: With a rooted Nexus 5 you can put it back, or possibly also on other rooted devices). Or maybe you should consider getting hold of a device which can run the Cyanogenmod variant of Android which has such a function called "Privacy Guard". iOS already has such functionality built in so that's a win for Apple, as nothing should be able to sneakily use your microphone unless you allow it. And in fact with the newly released iOS8 they've has gone so far as to say "The authorities can't access your data" with Android about to follow suit (reference), although whether that'll be a good thing when a high profile court case comes out where evidence couldn't be obtained from such a device is questionable.
I know many disagree, but I still can't help feel that the demise of Flash on mobile has encouraged platform-specific apps in a way that makes the permissions aspect worse. If the manufacturers or community had managed to write a more secure, lightweight Flash implementation maybe all of this wouldn't be an issue ... But it would've been less lucrative for the app stores ...

I think the hype over the messenger app is just scaremongering because people like to think that Facebook is evil. In reality, they're just adding new cool features in their app. Yes there are people who will say "But I'll never use them" but ithis is the technology industry, and it's going to move forward. It's called progress - without it they would struggle to remain dominant in the social media space. And if you're really concerned about the Facebook app, uninstall it and use the mobile web page which cannot access the things you're worried about, and does give you access to Messages. It's your choice. I have to admit I was a bit surprised when thumbnails of my newly taken photos showed up within the app and it offered to add them, but (I believe) that is all being done on the device and not sent to the servers (Unless it's sending thumbnails of course - if you want a conspiracy theory!)

Google, and increasingly Facebook, make their money out of targeted advertising and knowing things about you to enable the ads to be more useful. To a certain extent I don't have a problem with that (I don't use AdBlock as I'd rather vote with my feet on such issues and avoid the sites if they're too intrusive) and I'd rather ads were of interest to me than not) but for those who do the best answer is not to use them. Stop using Google and switch to a search engine such as duckduckgo instead which won't track you in the same way. The problem is that Google's data collection means that their results will generally be superior. They have access to a lot of information to use to give you the best results, and other search engines aren't quite there. But they're worth trying ...

My other big concern regarding Google Android is the "Android OS" data usage on cell connections on Android devices. It's not a huge amount - a few Kb each week, but I do wonder what exactly it's doing. It could be a measurable cost for some very low data users if it's using some data every day with some pay-as-you-go deals offering a certain amount of data per-day for a fixed price. Any expected data usage is counted under specific apps or the play services, and I have app updates disabled unless on WiFi. So what is my phone doing talking to Google in the background? I've got location data switched off, so it can't be sending the (frighteningly accurate as it happens! Try switching GPS off and you'll see) WiFi-based location mapping back to to Google in there ... This is from my device's cell data use in the last week:


Maybe they're the ones sending my photo thumbnails back to Google for the NSA ...

My real concerns about Facebook.

Maybe the above publicity about Messenger is a good distraction for Facebook, as it diverts attention from some of the real issues with their client apps. The mobile web page is great, but in terms of data use it's relatively inefficient. The calls made through the APIs by the Facebook app are far less of a data hog. So you might think another option might be to use a third-party Facebook client that doesn't give so many permissions. But there are two problems with this:
  1. Firstly, the feed is filtered differently. Actually through the APis it doesn't appear to be filtered at all so your "Close friends" and "Acquaintances" don't get the prominence you've asked for in your feed. If you're not familiar with those options they are a great way to increase/decrease the prevalence of friends in your stream - and if you really want to "stalk" a friend then there's also the "Get Notifications" option so you get a notification for everything from them. All of these are available when you click the "Friends" button on someone's profile on the web site, in addition to the asynchronous "Follow" option for those who allow it. There are many who think that Facebook filters the feed too much, and for them using another app might be a good idea ... Except for the second problem with third party apps...
  2. Many people have (understandably) set their privacy options (Settings -> Apps -> Apps Others Use) to prevent access to their posts and photos etc. (NOTE: Some experimentation I've done suggests it may not always work...although you can kill off the platform app entirely from Settings->Apps->"Apps, websites and plugins" which does seem to work but stops you using FaceBook logins anywhere) It's to stop games and other rogue apps from being able to access their "friends only" information, but it also prevents "real" third-party facebook clients from seeing their posts. Maybe there needs to be two classes of app - and perhaps the "anonymous login" option for apps is enough - although there's little incentive for Facebook to do quite enough to make "real" third party clients work as it's generally easier to inject ads in their own clients the way they want...
  3. I wrote about a bunch of other concerns a couple of years ago, and although some things have changed since then, I did mention the app permissions thing in there. and why people would choose to restrict app permissions.
And I'll be honest, those "lock-ins" meaning you get reduced functionality with third party apps is a big part of the reason I sometimes consider leaving Facebook. I am using a third party app, and so I know I'm often missing people's posts at the moment. But then on a positive, Facebook does provide a lot of control over the access if you know what your way around the options, but it's good to see Facebook's new "Privacy Check up" wizard being presented to users now (Did they know I was about to publish this blog?)



There are also articles on topics such as "How to lock down your facebook account for maximum privacy" but I honestly think that doing a lot of what those articles say reduces the effectiveness of a social media platform. Most people post things on twitter without where followers/followes are all visible, so why lock down your facebook account so much that such information is lost? Sure there are some scams involving acquisition of those lists, but I'd rather we lived in a world where people were educated on security and keeping their wits about them online rather than artificially let them believe that a checkbox on one site will make them secure/immune ... I'd really like to see schools teach good online security habits since such knowledge should be essential for all online users. Let's not be overly paranoid about one site.

Social moving forward - is there any hope?


Anyone trying to get into the social media space will have a very hard time competing with Facebook. Even Google are struggling to do it with their initial "Buzz" offering and now Google+, which has recently been changed so that all Google Mail users don't have to have a Google+ account. The critical mass of people who use Facebook is huge, and nothing else is at a level where it's a substitute. I suggested an alternative to Google search earlier, but it's much harder for one person to choose to use a different network. Twitter just isn't the same as Facebook, the recently launched "ad-free" Ello has potential issues:
Diaspora's "pod" concept where there's no central hosting server is interesting - they started by charging users for the service in order to support it without advertising which wasn't a bad idea in theory, but they're not getting the wide adoption they need either, and they had some issues with their reputation amongst early adopters. But there's an option if you want to break away from Facebook.

But Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure recently had an interesting perspective. He, like quite a few people I suspect, would be willing to pay for such "essential" services as Google if it was an option to do so and not have all the data collection in place. But he argues quite strongly that from where Google are now it actually wouldn't be of benefit to them to offer it, as we're far more valuable to them when they can hold our data than a token amount of money would be. The tracking of us is what let's the world move forward to the sorts of ideals that Microsoft's vision of the future has predicted, and things like Google Now, if you let it, are moving us towards that. And facebook's revamped Atlas advert platform is widening its scope to rival Google Ads, but while introducing that they're adding anonymous logins and encouraging privacy checkups. The question that many people didn't ask at the time of Microsoft's vision video was: Who pays for it? The answer is you, by handing over your details so Google potentially knows more about who you really are than you do. It's up to you if you're happy with that, but the important thing is to know what you're doing. And if you want to see who's getting your info in practice, install the extremely enlightening the Lightbeam (Formerly Collusion) plugin for FireFox, or the third-party Ghostery one, and remember that it's your choice to allow web sites to set cookies .. They all prompt you for it now although that's possibly missed the point since the tracking is often just done via javascript instead. I've also seen a comment recently about how Facebook pick up on things you've viewed on external sites (as does Google) but in reality that's not so much Facebook spying on you as the retailer sending your details back to Facebook. Arguably a more realistic way to look at it.

But if you really value you're privacy, I suspect that LinkedIn, also known as "The Creepiest Social Network", is probably the one to avoid ..

NB The quote in the title of this article is from Kasabian's Eez-eh single

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scotland #indyref: All that's bad about politics

[Short link to this article if you want it - http://goo.gl/WFPIzm - or retweet me]

I'm a bit late in posting this but what the hell ...

The Scotland independence referendum is coming up to it's climax. I've finished drafting this just after midnight - voting will commence in a few hours. The question is simple:

"Should Scotland be an independent country"


That's it. Yes or No. I currently live in England after living in Scotland until I was 22 therefore I don't get to vote in this. Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom for many years, and there are plenty of arguments on both sides. The white paper is available here if you want to see what's being proposed. And some of the things that would still be shared at least to begin with are covered in this article. But I'm more concerned with how the arguments are being put forward. There have been two significant televised debates: One on STV (for some ridiculous reason they didn't broadcast it UK-wide and the online stream couldn't cope) and another on the BBC between Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP (Scottish National Party) looking for a "Yes" vote and Labour party politician Alastair Darling who is the leader of the "Better Together" campaign who want a "No" answer to the above question.

Both of these debates seem to have been quite "lively" but have been characterised by people talking over one another. There seems to have been a lack of listening and straight answers to the questions - they are politicians after all - but we should use this as an opportunity for a fresh start... In the first debate, Alex seemed to take a naive "I don't have a plan B because I'm only focussing on plan A" on the currency debate. It's such a critical point that it's unbelievable to me that he didn't just quote what's in the whitepaper given there were so many people who seemed to want that question cleared up. Assuming the whole public have read through the whitepaper seems utterly naive, so treat the public like adults who and just quote what's in the white paper so people can make an informed decision about the possibilities:

Four currency options were examined by the Fiscal Commission
– the continued use of Sterling (pegged and flexible), the
creation of a Scottish currency and membership of the Euro.

Concern answered, move on. And while he gave that answer in the second debate I think it wasted a lot of time that could have been better spent on something more useful in such a widely broadcasted debate.

Another similar point was when Alex asked of Alastair "Could Scotland be a successful independent country?" As far as I can tell (and I think the second/third time he asked he got a yes answer, but continued regardless) that is a bit of a non-question. "Could" is simply an indication of a non-zero possibility that it might be successful. Of course it could, that doesn't mean it's likely to, so the question was purely to elucidate a sound-bite that could be used answer, not an intention to draw out any useful debate, disappointingly.

There also seems to have been a lot of negative campaigning and personal attacks by the "Yes" campaign. Taking pot shots at Alastair's previous work in government (not really relevant to the debate) and references to bullying/fear tactics from  the other sides. There seems to be a constant stream of trying to smear their opponents instead of producing coherent messages and factual evidence to counter the arguments presented. It's the worst possible kind of politics. If Scotland wishes to truly start afresh, then starting from a point of politicians point-scoring against each other in the worst possible way doesn't sound like a good way to start a government of a new country. Does that really sound like a change from the past? Or will Scotland just end up with the same distrust of politics, just with a different set of people? Yet that's what Alex is promising: if you vote "Yes". You won't be ruled by the politicies of the politicians in Westminster.

True, you'll be ruled by policies created by politicians in Edinburgh instead. They'll still have to make similar decisions based on similar facts - are they really likely to come to significantly different conclusions and different compromises compared to what the can with the separate parliament they have just now? They will still be fairly remote from where most people are, just slightly closer. Is there any real reason to believe that a separate Scottish government will be able to make better decisions and make people's lives better? They'll have a smaller pot of money to play with. Will more politicians being employed to make decisions be worth it? Well you've already got a lot of what the "Yes" campaign is promising so that seems a case of trying to make promises of delivering some snow to the eskimos, although oddly the "No" campaign hasn't capitalised on that fact as much as they probably should have:
It astonishes me that the "Yes" campaign hasn't managed to negotiate secure answers on currency, EU membership etc. The fact that people are being asked to vote on a basis of "Let's make ourselves independent, then we'll sort out the details later" just seems like voting for a fantasy. It's relying on passion. The heart over the head. The practicalities of being able to produce the ideal view which is visible through rose-tinted glasses is by no means certain.  But the fact that it "could" be that rosy view is what the "Yes" campaign appears to be based around. But is "could" worth the risk? JK Rowling tweeted a link to a Guardian article on the subject:
There are a lot of extremely vocal people, particularly on the "Yes" side (Tommy Sheriden springs to mind) but you'd expect that. The people who want to change the status quo are the ones who shout the loudest in most situations - and they should. The tabloid newspapers and the twitter echo chamber can make strong polarised views, and seemingly scandalous facts, spread very quickly. This is a long term decision that should really be taken on less emotional responses, and that makes it harder to choose independence. It seemed clear to many people that switching the UK voting system to something other than "First Past The Post" made sense, but ultimately that wasn't what the public actually chose. How will this second significant referendum in the UK go?

So to summarise: Is politics, and more importantly, people's quality of life, really going to be better in an independent Scotland? It certainly could be, and that's what the SNP's Raison d'ĂȘtre (so what does Alex do if it fails?) but I personally haven't seen enough concrete evidence to convince me it's likely enough to be worth the risk. And it's certainly not convinced me the politicians involved are likely to be any better than those in Westminster. But regardless of what I think, it's in the hands of those living in Scotland.

I'm glad I had my passport renewed recently, maybe I'll need it to visit Scotland soon:

If nothing else we are looking like we're going to get a potentially world record turnout at the polling booths.(EDIT: It was 84.6%) Here are some other figures for comparison:


I watched this episode of Question Time live - this guy in the audience cracked me up so I'll leave him with the last word - if he has his way then it's not going to happen:

Monday, 21 April 2014

90/99 minute audio CD writing with Linux


[Short link to this article if you need it: http://goo.gl/D9n7tX - or retweet me!]

There is an executive summary/how-to at the end of the main article if you're just looking to get on and do it! This has been quite a popular blog entry, so if you've found it useful, please get in touch and let me know!

INTRODUCTION

It seemed like such an easy thing to do. Use Linux to write a continuous mix audio CD of some tracks of 2013 to a 90-minute blank CD-R with track splits and CD-Text information. Bear in mind that some things I'm covering here are NOT specific to 90-minute discs, but are true for audio CD writing on Linux in general. I'm writing this to document my experiences since I struggled to find the comprehensive information anywhere else. For reference in this article my use of "wodim" and "cdrecord" are interchangeable - the machine I was using used wodim 1.1.11 - "cdrecord" was symlinked to it.

For the uninitiated, most CD-Rs on the market are 80 minute long, and can sometimes be "overburned" by around 88 seconds. Longer CD-Rs of 90 and 99 minutes are sometimes available at higher cost, although these are technically in violation of Philips+Sony's Orange book specification, so they cannot be guaranteed to work either in your writer or anything that's reading them, and most software doesn't know how to recognise them, hence the need to use overburning to write anything more than 80 minutes long. The ability to overburn effectively is dependent on your drive.

TRIAL AND ERROR - THE FULL STORY

Firstly I fired up the Brasero disk burner (As an aside it's not helpful when typing that name into Unity's Dash that Ubuntu dynamically searches for products on Amazon now - especially when you're 4 characters into that particular program name...) set up the track breaks, add the track info for CD-Text, insert the 90-minute blank and ... it wasn't interested. No, for the purposes of this I really did not want to burn over several discs:


So a bit of searching around got me nowhere fast, other than speculation (and a suggestion that k3b might be a better choice). Either way, Brasero wasn't looking like the universal tool I needed. A friend suggested he'd managed to write 90 minute CD-Rs using cdrecord directly. But my requirements were a little harder than writing a data disc so I tried a couple of things. Firstly I tested with a smaller audio CD with Brasero writing the image to a file (and cue sheet for the track break/CD-Text info) to an image file and trying to burn the image manually to a CD-RW with cdrecord (If you're not familiar with cuesheet use, I'll cover that at the end):

    cdrecord dev=/dev/sr0 -text -dao cuefile=MyAudio1.cue

This seemed to work ok until I went to play it. Random tracks (didn't seem to be a pattern to which ones, and it varied depending on which tracks I'd included) but always the same ones if the same image was burned again) seemed to have a low volume buzz in the background. Quite odd since it was a continuous input file. I never managed to figure out why, so ultimately that was useless.

While having a play around with cuesheets it became apparent that I didn't actually need brasero's image file - just the cue sheet (for the record brasero's track splitting was ok, other than the fact it seemed to always end up splitting with the tracks starting at 2 and put track 1 at the end - bear that in mind when typing in the track names!) I could edit the cue sheet myself, reset the type in the first line from "MOTOROLA" to "WAVE" and change the image file name to the source .wav file.


Good plan, but that didn't quite work either. I got this:


   Inappropriate audio coding in 'MyAudio1.wav' on line 1 in 'MyAudio1.cue'.

So cdrecord claimed the wav file was invalid - did I need Brasero's image after all? Was I back to square 1? Not quite ... turns out (and this is not unreasonable given the format of CDs) that cdrecord won't accept a .wav file that isn't in 44.1kHz, and my source file was in 48kHz. The error message above from cdrecord is a little ambiguous in that respect and I may raise that with them.

So the next step: fire up audacity, load the file, use the drop down in the bottom left of the screen (as per the screen shot on the right) to switch it to 44.1kHz (44100Hz) and re-export. NOTE: It's worth pointing out here that Brasero didn't care about the source file being 48kHz and would auto-convert behind the scenes when writing to a normal sized CD:

   sxa@sainz:/dev/shm$ file *.wav
   MyAudio1.wav: RIFF (little-endian) data, WAVE audio, Microsoft PCM, 16 bit, stereo 48000 Hz
   MyAudio2.wav: RIFF (little-endian) data, WAVE audio, Microsoft PCM, 16 bit, stereo 44100 Hz

Much better - it got rid of that error message but once again it still didn't work. This time cdrecord objected that the amount of data in the final track didn't end on a CD-frame (2352-byte) boundary:

   wodim: Bad audio track size 42302672 for track 25.
   wodim: Audio tracks must be at least 705600 bytes and a multiple of 2352.
   wodim: See -pad option.

Sadly it's suggestion to use "-pad" didn't seem to do anything useful and I still got the same error message - I'm guessing that probably doesn't work when the track info comes from a cuesheet. So back into Audacity, set the time counts at the bottom to work in CD-DA frames instead of seconds (as per screen shot above left), highlight the whole thing, manually drop the "end" frame number by 1 from whatever it was (you'll lose up to 1/74 of a second but I think you can probably live with that!) and export the selection to a .wav again.

So now I have a 44.1kHz CD-DA framed .wav file and a brasero-generated (slightly edited to point at a .wav) cue file. For the record, I tested with a smaller .wav file first to my CD-RW and it did solve the "buzz" problem from earlier - I figured it was better to try that before potentially wasting a 90-minute blank!

I'd seen reports that overburning (required for anything over 80 minutes) was much more reliable at slower speeds, so I gave cdrecord the parameter to reduce the write speed to 2x:

   cdrecord dev=/dev/sr0 -text -dao cuefile=MyAudio1.cue -v -overburn speed=2

Now the drive (an LG GSA-4120B) seemingly wasn't interested in hanging around and so the speed was increased to 4 (automatically, this was still using the above command). It completed and - I'm delighted to say - seemed to work. Played in the three players I tried, and the CD-Text information was there!

I also have 99 minute blanks but haven't needed them yet - I assume they'd work as well as the 90s as long as your drive is happy with them. The audio I had was only about 89 minutes long so it wasn't worth using the longer ones.

I remember playing with, and running a very early website dedicated to digital audio extraction (DAE - now more commonly referred to as "ripping") and MP3 files before most people knew about them, and here I am looking at lower level CD-DA stuff again. It's all coming full circle...



EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

I'm adding this section as a summary checklist for the next time I need to do this - it just summarises the rest of the article. Here's how to burn a continuous audio file with CD-Text to a 90-minute CD-R under Linux (assuming your drive supports it)
  1. Ensure your source audio file is in a CD-native 44.1kHz sample rate
  2. Make sure your file has a size that contains a number of CD-DA frames equal to a multiple of 2532 bytes
  3. Export to a standard uncompressed PCM .wav file
  4. Create a cue sheet with the CD-Text details (Brasero makes this fairly easy)
  5. Write the disc using the lowest possibly speed for increased reliability:
    cdrecord dev=/dev/sr0 -text -dao cuefile=MyFile.cue -v -overburn speed=2
For steps 1 and 2 you can use the "Audacity" editor - make sure your screen looks something like this before saving with File->Export Selection - ensure it's an exact number of total frames (I suggest setting it to one less than whatever it was originally when you highlight the whole waveform with CTL-A):




If you've never used a cue sheet before, there Wikipedia article is a good reference, but here's a quick example of the start of one in case you want to bypass creating it with Brasero showing the first three tracks. Just add as many as you need (although as mentioned, the track PERFORMER entries don't get picked up by cdrecord):


  FILE "/mnt/scd13/2013top34-90minues.wav" WAVE
  TITLE "sxa's 2013 top tracks mix"
  PERFORMER "@sxa555"
  TRACK 01 AUDIO
   TITLE "Mozart's House"
   PERFORMER "Clean Bandit"
   INDEX 01 00:00:00
  TRACK 02 AUDIO
   TITLE "Royals (Zoo Station Remix)"
    PERFORMER "Lorde"
    INDEX 01 03:32:24
   TRACK 03 AUDIO
    TITLE "All I Want Is You"
    PERFORMER "Agnes"
    INDEX 01 06:56:24

[etc.]



REFERENCES:
  1. Cue file format
  2. CD-DA frames tip from billw58 in audacity forums
  3. cdrecord man page with the "88 second" overburn reference (search "-overburn")
  4. Ubuntu's inclusion of amazon search results into Dash
  5. Article which gave me the hint about the missing PERFORMER entry

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Which music streaming service to choose to replace WE7?

[Short link to this article if you need it - http://goo.gl/nKqxM7 or retweet me ]

I've written before about the reasons why I'm more than happy to pay for music streaming services and how it hasn't diminshed the amount of music I pay for, but recently WE7 discontinued it's "on-demand" subscription service. With it's demise occurring after it's acquisition by Tesco and a move exclusively to a zero-cost "radio station" model after the rebranding to BlinkBox Music I had to start looking around for an alternative (Thanks to the team at Gareth and Georgie at WE7 for recovering my playlists! I do still recommend BlinkBox to those who don't need explicit selections). Spotify was the obvious one of course, but part of what I liked about WE7 was supporting the underdog, so my preference would be to support a bit of competition and go for an alternative. So what are the options?

Spotify

Everyone knows what this is, and most people have probably tried it at some point, so not a lot more needs to be said.

Grooveshark

The less said about this service the better. While they've now got agreements for a lot of the music they're streaming that was not always the case, so purely on that basis I can't really support them. However the interface is nice, clean and easy to use

Deezer

Deezer had an offer running at the time where you could get the "full" service (including mobile use) for the price of the desktop only one. That looked like a pretty good deal.

Youtube Mix radio

There's always the option of trying the option that a lot of people now use for consuming music - youtube!
Of course from a bandwidth perspective it's not ideal since it's streaming video but still ... Unfortunately this doesn't let me pay to remove adverts so it was a bit of a non-starter for what I was looking for but I'm including it as it might be useful to others, and youtube probably the easiest way to share playlists publicly.

rd.io

I'll be honest I hadn't heard too much about rdio previously, but a colleague recommended it to me. It seems to have a similar range of artists to the other options, and the prices were the same too, so that became another option.

last.fm

While I use last.fm for scrobbling I was looking for more than just a radio service, so ultimately it went the same way as blinkbox music and was eliminated early on.


SO HOW DO YOU CHOOSE ONE?

With all the services being the same price (£4.99/month desktop, £9.99 desktop+mobile) there was nothing to choose between them on that basis, so I personally drew up a list of pros and cons for each service. I'd tried all of them, I didn't want to use a native application (Part of what made me subscribe to WE7 was that it was browser/flash based so would work on the Solaris desktop I was using at the time). All three can work in a flash-enabled browser. last.fm scrobbling was also a requirement and all did that (as well as posting your plays to facebook). I also tried using playlists on all the sites too (My near-complete 2013 playlist exists on all of WE7/BlinkBox, Spotify, Deezer and rd.io if you want to try each of them)


Serviceproscons
Spotify
(Sweden)
  • The biggest name
  • Lots of playlists
  • Most people sharing streams/playlists give spotify links
  • While not the case at the time I was deciding, you an now use the mobile app without paying
  • Facebook integration seems most advanced
  • Still mostly based around a native app
  • Picky about browser versions on play.spotify.com
  • Peer-to-peer protocol
Deezer
(France)
  • Allows uploading of your own MP3s
  • Cute "mixing desk" feature, but needs quick machine
  • Desktop version (just) works under Dolphin+flash on Android
  • The numbers suggest it actually has more members than Spotify
  • Good range of "smartTV" support
  • MP3 uploads don't scrobble to last.fm
  • Seemed harder to find some specific tracks than on the others
  • Always seemed to auto-play when loaded
  • Too easy to accidentally start play of a track when browsing
  • Only native desktop app is for Windows8 (although I didn't want one anyway!) 
rd.io
(US)
  • Search seems very good, even on mobile
  • "Remote control" lets you use mobile to control playback on another machine
  • Radio stations have "Artist only" -> "Adventurous" slider (Something I always wished WE7 had added)
  • User interface feels easiest to navigate (although not perfect)
  • Social aspect - recommendations and "following artists" nicely integrated (although limited artists are on it)
  • Memory use seems about double that of Spotify/Deezer
  • No way to play your own tracks from the UI
  • Search box sometimes seems to fail to respond to the backspace key
  • Doesn't appear to have a "queue this next" feature - only "play later/last" or "play immediately"

In terms of "killer features" my decision was made by the following summary points:
  • rd.io's memory usage was a concern
  • Deezer's MP3 upload option was offset by the inability to scrobble them, so that wasn't the advantage I'd hoped for
  • My home PVR was still on Firefox 11 (don't judge me!) and Spotify didn't like that
  • rd.io's remote control was very slick and allowed control of hifi playback from tablet
  • rd.io's "adventurous" slider was something didn't appear to exist anywhere else.
So all were flawed, but ultimately (and I procrastinated for a while!) I decided that for me rd.io's other features outweighed the large memory usage, and so that's the one I now subscribe too. It just seemed like the most innovative product in the market so was worth supporting on that basis. A decision backed up by the fact that they teamed up with Shazam (the original iPhone "killer app") to dynamically create add "shazamed" tracks to an rd.io playlist - an rdio exclusive for now!

It's worth noting that even though I've only subscribed to the rd.io desktop offering, I can still use the remote control from the Android app so I don't need to have the PVR screen active to control playback from there, although it does nag you to upgrade when you start the app. Another point to note is that when you're on the free trial of rd.io you can't use it from a remote country (Deezer doesn't have this restriction). That restriction goes away when you start paying, and you get the ability to access all the tracks available from your home country when connecting from elsewhere.

[P.S. After drafting this article Spotify completed a purchase of The Echo Nest, which amongst other things provides a "radio" recommendation service used not only by Spotify, but also some of it's competitors such as rdio and Pandora. Is this an aggressive takeover to cause trouble for their competition? Maybe but let's hope not - here's a positive view of the takeover from an Echo Nest employee. I worry that any company that gets sufficiently big in any sector will be able to make such purchases and have control, and Spotify's recently had a $250M injection while it's competitors have been laying off staff. So I don't think such things are good for competition in the marketplace, and therefore I'm even more happy to continue to support rdio - I like to put my money where my mouth is]

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Android - if I'm honest, it's a bit disappointing ... 10 reasons

[Short link to this article if you need it - http://goo.gl/ixqxJy - or retweet me]

Another old article - drafted nearly a year ago now but it's time to post it! There is a separate companion article about problems with the device, but this one is about the OS.

DISCLAIMER 1: This is written from a perspective of someone who's bought their first Android device.
DISCLAIMER 2: I bought the tablet because I don't have a laptop, so some of these are issues in using it as an alternative to a laptop to highlight the limitations of doing so.

Now that I've got both of those things out of the way, I'll continue. I bought a Nexus10 because I not longer have a laptop in the house. I figured the stuff I'd do on a laptop would be more practically served by a tablet. For me the disadvantage of any sensibly priced laptop on the market has always been the screen resolution - it's all very well saying you have a 15" screen, but why do  they headlines never list the screen resolution? It's a shame it's taken Apple's "retina" marketing machine to move things forward though. So 2560x1600 for £319? I'll have some of that please ... And I've got an external keyboard for more comfortably writing blog entries and the like. The Surface would have been tempting at the same price point and resolution, but it wasn't good enough in the first generation when I was looking.



So what's the problem? Honestly, there are several. And I'm surprised at quite how many. I'll point out that none of these are related to the specific device (I'll save those for elsewhere) but are just about Android (initially 4.2.x, now 4.4) generally from the perspective of someone using it in lieu of a laptop.

Let's get started:
  1. When you first power it on (or after a factory reset) it won't do anything until it's connected to wifi and registered itself.  If the wifi authentication requires you to type a username/password over an HTTPS connection it will fail (without a useful error) because - as far as I can tell - the clock is set to well before the SSL certificate was valid. So you're stuck until you find a wifi with another auth method.
  2. Partially related to the first point, my second attempt was to connect through the AdHoc wifi network access point provided by my Nokia N9. Except that Android can't connect to AdHoc wifi networks, so that failed. And means I can't use the tablet on the network out and about as I was planning to without pulling some tricks. (Pre-4.4, this Android app lets you tether over BlueTooth although it doesn't work with all apps e.g. web browsers...)
  3. The task switcher bears very little relevance to anything in terms of what's actually live and running. It might as well be a "recently started apps" list. In many cases it's really inconvenient as you lose status because an app restarts when you go back to it, and that effect is even obvious in the standard applications like web browser windows.
  4. A controversial one - lack of flash support in the browser. Now you can find it manually and bolt it on by allowing unapproved software (although only with Firefox/Dolphin) that's miles from ideal. I know there are reasons again Flash but as per this thread and again in this thread (which I posted after discovering they've removed APIs in Android 4.4 that Flash requires - here's an unofficial fixed version).  But I don't buy those reasons and I think the devices are worse off for not having it. It was a differentiating factor Android had and was useful for compatibility reasons. Deprecate it if you like, but I like having it there - and in my experience the UX is often better than a poorly-rewritten-for-many-OSs mobile app. But as I said in that first thread, I'm not entirely convinced the reasons for removing it weren't just political or pressure from media providers ... Music streaming services are an example where you're charged more on "mobile OSs", and bypassing that using the desktop flash version makes it harder to justify. It forces an alternate experience on mobile devices when it's not always necessary.
  5. Related to the previous point on flash and desktop/mobile differences, if I'm using YouTube I'm subject to the limitations put on "mobile" devices i.e. some videos are not playable. Which I believe is the same restriction that stops all YouTube videos playing via set-top boxes/BluRay players etc. When I bought a Sony BluRay player I liked the fact it had YouTube support - but the limitations soon had me building a "real" PVR to attach to the TV instead. On Android you can get the message "The content owner has not made this available on mobile devices". The Puffin browser's Flash support lets me get around that (EDIT: As does Dolphin with the Flash plugin if you set it to identify with a Desktop User-Agent instead of Android) but it's ridiculous that I have to do it. 
  6. Again on multimedia - video streaming apps such as BBC iPlayer, 4OD etc, don't seem to continue to play when in the background. I don't expect to see the video when it's in the background, but the audio could easily continue. That's the experience I'd get on a laptop, why not on a tablet? Maybe I'm switching away to tweet during a broadcast, or while adverts are on (I have no problems with adverts and don't use AdBlock). I just don't want to have everything pause by default as though I can only handle one thing at a time (Sadly the same is true if you bolt on Flash into an Android browser - it will pause when not in the foreground).
  7. The facebook app looks suspiciously similar to touch.facebook.com - I wish they'd make a bit more effort with the app since there doesn't seem to be such a huge advantage of it other than integrating it into the Gallery's "Share" options and the like. And despite what Zuckerberg might claim, HTML5 is quick enough for the purpose. Just ask Sencha.
  8. UMS (USB Mass Storage) has been removed in favour of MTP/PTP for the built-in storage.  The reason for this is that there is no longer a separate FAT block device that can be exported. Fine if you're on Windows which supports MTP. Less fine if on Linux which doesn't always have support for it (out of the box before anyone suggests otherwise!). The reasons are technically sound but a use case I have is being able to put music/video on my device and plug it into my car, or someone's SmartTV, and play it back. And I can't with my Android device. HDMI playback is all well (if a bit of a battery drain) but I'd like to be able to control the playback from my TV remote control. Wouldn't be so bad if the Nexus10 had a memory card slot (which would be exported over UMS) but it doesn't.
  9. I never realise quite how bad this issue was until I started using Android but I'm now sick of the "Do you want to download our app" popups when I go to half the friggin' web sites on the internet. It's horrible. People install AdBlock and the like to get rid of intrusive nonsense but this is far worse. NO I BLOODY DON'T WANT YOUR APP - it's not that hard to just put a banner at the top advertising your app, but please don't intrude on my use of your site.
  10. Device-locked applications. I'm particularly looking at you SkyGo and itvPlayer. Is it really that hard to open up to all Android devices (possibly non-rooted if you must)? And even when they do work, some services lock out the external HDMI port when streaming (4OD explicitly displays a separate message on the external screen) This really doesn't feel like a laptop replacement.


So there you have it. A list of ten things that I really don't like about Android given my use case. About half I knew about before, and pretty much all weren't true of my pure Linux (as opposed to the "Yes I'm Linux but abstracted away by Dalvik" thing that calls itself Android) Nokia #N900. For me, the customer experience isn't quite what I'd hoped for given my use case. I wonder how the Surface or Playbook would do on all of these points?
Don't get me wrong, I don't think Android is inherently bad. It's just that for the use case of a desktop replacement, it is quite some way from perfect, and I feel some of the restrictions are in place for commercial reasons "because we are big market leaders and we can" as opposed to because they're right for the users.

(Don't forget to also read the article in my customer service blog about my experience with the Nexus10 and Google's support)

[EDIT 25/02/2014: Copied from a comment I made on G+ tonight:
I've just tried to stream the #NME awards at http://www.nme.com/awards - it managed to fire up at first but wouldn't go full screen (about 300pixels wide on a 2560x1600 screen is pointless). It now won't restart at all now in chrome. Fired up first time on my Linux laptop via #flash (with a 720p stream). Can't verify flash on #Android tablet because it's 4.4 #usabilityFail Maybe I'm being unfair in expecting it to work on my big brand tablet ... Oh wait a minute ... 

[EDIT 15/10/2014: The other thing that isn't on this list os selective app permissions. Android flirted with it in 4.3 but removed it. Probably my #1 thing on the Android wish list, since since I think a lot of concerns about bleeding permissions and the facebook messenger non-scandal could be avoided if they implemented it]


Sunday, 12 January 2014

Does Facebook (and other social networking) lead to increased depression?

[ Short link to this article if you need it - http://goo.gl/ykgDqG or retweet me ]

This is an article that's been in draft form well over a year now (it was written as the final entry following my previous two articles about Facebook - one on the frequent appearance of unsourced "scandal" posts and social engineering and another on technical issues with the site - and I initially intended to post it shortly after the others near the end of 2012!) It wook a while because it's a tricky one to balance the article correctly and frankly, it was hard at the time to come by non-anecdotal statistics to back it up effectively. But I now need to get it out of the way so I can post some more blogs :-) Unfortunately I may have missed the boat slightly by delaying it since there are a few similar articles that were posted during 2013 by others!

I have a concern that social media potentially triggers more cases of depression than is necessarily appreciated. This is, of course, not necessarily an issue limited to Facebook, but I've focussed on it because the sorts of things people tend to post on that site more typically demonstrate the concern as "Facebook friends" are mostly contacts that we know personally rather than the rich and famous or other people you've never met.

Over the last ten years the number of young people admitted to hospital for self-harming has increased by 68% and the rate appears to be increasing. [EDIT: Deaths from suicide are over double those from road accidents (2012 data, 5981 vs 1754 - info via @MentalHealthCop)] Similar increases have occurred with other mental illnesses during the period when the internet has taken a major part of people's lives. This is particularly the case with younger people who are starting to grow up with social media as a normal part of their life. There have also been large increases in parents' reports of their children's depression and anxiety disorders between the 80s and the 00s (see chart below), and while those surveys mostly pre-date the widespread explosion of social networking (although not the internet generally) it does suggest that people are more likely to be susceptible from an earlier age to the effects I'm writing about. (As an aside I thought the charts of when high school pupils use Facebook through the day was quite interesting too!)


With social media it's now far easier, and common, to get a view inside other people's lives. You now get more details than you would have previously had from people who you don't regularly interact with in person - those outside your traditional circle of close friends. And in general people are more likely to be sharing the positives - when they're out visiting somewhere or at a fun event for example. It's far less likely that you'll hear about the more mundane things (except photos of food) or hear from people when they're not actively doing anything interesting. Although saying that, posting self-deprecating posts for others' entertainment can act as an antidote to these issues!

The problem with happiness


So if people mostly post fun stuff, then where am I going with this article? What's the problem with sharing "happiness". Here are a few concerns:
  1. If you see people doing fun stuff and you're not, which can leave you feeling left out
  2. You may feel under pressure to find things worth posting, and if you believe you don't have any suitable things to post, you might think your life is not as interesting
  3. Maybe you'll take it personally if you think people "unfriend" you because you are not also posting lots of positive things
  4. You may see people with hundreds of social media connections but you don't have many yourself, which may leave you feel more lonely and believe you are missing out
All of which I believe are valid concerns that can leave to problems and - tackling each in turn - here's why:
  • Point 1 is a hard one to solve, as you (hopefully!) wouldn't want your friends not to enjoy themselves, but if someone is left with a feeling that you've been actively left out then there can be thoughts of "Why was I left out?" or "I might have enjoyed that too". This problem is potentially worse with location based checkin systems such as foursquare. There are plenty of innocent reasons whym someone may have been left out - it's a private event with their partner, someone else who doesn't know you arranged it, last minute scheduling, or there's only so many people that could come along. Is it even fair to invite you to something that the organiser believes you wouldn't be able to afford? Either way it's best not to automatically assume it was a malicious decision not to include you.
  • Depression + anxiety disorders will not be helped by the extra pressure of point 2. There's an interesting statistic from mental health charity MIND which claimed that depression with anxiety is 3.7x more common that depression alone (that statistic was from a while back - apologies that I can't find the reference link for it any more) I also think that people who post comments like "I already knew that" or "Have you really not heard of that?" and similar comments are more negative than people realise and can put people off posting. Maybe one person did see it before, maybe a few more did, but there's a decent chance that many of your other followers didn't so it shouldn't put you off.
  • The third reason is always interesting because you won't normally know the reason for it. In general I'd recommend that people mute others from your timeline rather than unfriending them if you don't want visibility of their posts. Personally, I'd only unfriend if I wanted to stop them seeing all my posts for some reason, not because I didn't want to see theirs. It's easy for people to take it personally if they're unfriended, as articles like this show. I find it rather bizarre that some people on twitter have a weekly automated post of how many people unfollowed them from tools such as JustUnfollow or fllwrs - how can that be good for your ego? And in the twitter case it's always possible that someone just moved you to a list instead of having you in their main timeline.
  • Point 4 is often a fallacy. There are plenty of "friend sluts" out there who will friend and accept nearly anyone. Other people are much stricter and use Facebook as a medium for sharing more privately than on other networks like twitter or Google+. I'm in that category - I have a lot of unaccepted Facebook friend requests - mostly from work colleagues! The numbers of friends are rarely representative of anything unless you are using Facebook for business reasons. So what if you know fewer people than others - think of it as quality over quantity. Or buy this T-shirt. Sure you might not get the same interaction as others on your posts because of the lower reach, but that doesn't make the interactions any less valuable. This BBC article concludes that the practical limit of close friends you have is between six and 12 anyway. So anything over that are likely to be extras that people have chosen to have as less close social network friends.
So should you be sensitive to these issues when posting? Maybe ... there's always an option of using the Facebook invite mechanism to send out private invites and restrict discussions from those you might want not to see them if you want to. Facebook has made the use of groups (which has been there for a long time) a more integral part of the site as they've moved forward and it's good to see those options available on mobile platforms now too as they used to be excluded from the APIs. And despite all the Facebook privacy concerns you hear about, they have been better than most other social networks at providing options to control it. But overall we need to ensure that we understand that not everyone is posting great positive things all the time. It may sometimes look like it from your feed (and if you're suffering from an illness such as depression it's easier for your view to be skewed towards that way of thinking and think "why can't I be like that?" or "How can I compete with my own posts?") but the majority of people aren't necessarily so prolific in their positivity sharing.

It's important to try and retain a sense of perspective and not drown in the belief that "everyone" else is doing such things all the time although it is easy to think like that and for it to get you down. It's also easy to think that just avoiding it by deactivating your social media account will resolve things, but would it truly change anything? I used to advocate restricting certain people's likelihood to appear in your facebook feed, but unfortunately Facebook seem to have removed the feature.

Looking at the whole topic another way, is point 2 above a reason why people might choose to overshare? If they crave the extra interaction and feel a need to compete with others then it's a possibility. The following quote refers to "the line" of what to decide to share. It wouldn't be right to compromise your principles to share something you don't want to just to make yourself appear more exciting, although the reasons above might superficially encourage people to overshare:

Social media and headlines

There have been a few stories of "Facebook-related suicides" (or bullying in all it's different forms) in the news and Facebook even have a specific reporting page for concerning posts but I don't think that blaming social media sites themselves for this is sensible or scalable in a culture of free speech - even if it does make for effective tabloid headlines. At worst the social networks are merely a catalyst to such outcomes. Knee-jerk "We must put a stop to [something we've seen]" reactions usually haven't considered the wider picture and can lead to a lynch-mob mentality which is neither positive nor objective (a topic I may write a separate article on at some point). Suicides and bullying happen as a result of life in general and not just to social media participants and I believe that people trying to put all the blame on companies running the sites for the behaviour of their users is utterly ridiculous for several reasons:
  1. It ignores the digital age of the internet and how people interact now - more online than in person. It doesn't change the rules, it merely moves the communication to a different medium and makes it more open. That isn't the sole cause of any underlying problems, and being open means it's easier to obtain evidence if required. Surely that's better than driving such behaviour underground?
  2. Blaming large companies is symptomatic of a modern day lawyer-obsessed compensation culture where everyone's happy if they can find someone to sue in a legal loophole rather than tackling the underlying issues of society. It's an easy option - not the right one.
  3. If the people are committing crimes, then if anyone it should be the police dealing with it.
  4. Is the alternative - personal data being held by more companies - actually preferable? (See my G+ post for more on this topic from a recent example from actions towards footballer Stan Collymore))

Celebrities and social media trolls


I still find it somewhat surprising when celebrities complain about "twitter trolls" - does that behaviour really surprise anyone with human nature being the way it is? Not everyone's going to like you, and some will vigorously say so. Abuse is not nice, but it's life and unfortunately it's a strong part of being in the public spotlight for celebrities, although it would be preferable for people to stick to attacking the points they object to rather than the person making them. James Blunt seems to acknowledge that it's not likely to change and deals with trolls in a smart way on twitter, but it's usually better to just ignore general insults. Or if it's genuine negative criticism see if you can learn anything from it, but don't think that everyone has the same view just because of one comment:


Would you recognise a genuine cry for help?


But let's look at it from the other side - not the negative view of the victims being bullied on social media (which includes sites like Little Gossip who's anonymous approach to posts made it easier to victimise people) but in terms of other people using it as a cry for help when in a troubling situation. Social media can undoubtedly make that side of it easier (here's one such article about that subject) and there are plenty of support channels out there - here's an article about how mental health topics are discussed on twitter. However it's not always easy if the person doesn't want to take the steps themselves to resolve any negative situations. When you see such a post of someone potentially suffering what do you think:
  • Are they actually merely "venting"?
  • Do they want some friendly emotional support?
  • Are they genuinely in serious trouble and need quick action?
It's hard to determine which of those three is true with any degree of accuracy from just a status update (especially if the person has a history of "crying wolf" or has a reputation as a "drama queen"). And if you don't necessarily know the person too well it may be hard to determine which of those three categories any given post is in, and it's also tricky to ascertain what reaction someone is even looking for. What you might perceive as a critical situation from a post may not really be that way. And how should you react when you spot that such a post or thread is deleted as occasionally happens? Domestic abuse is also a serious issue, and forced self-censorship on social media is one way in which it can show up (although the internet has made it easier to find resources to help with domestic abuse). I'd argue that as part of moving to a digital age our ability to react to these things appropriately are the new skills we need to improve on, not finding organisations to blame.

Conclusion


Unfortunately I don't believe there's one easy solution to social media potentially increasing problems but let's be honest - we're not going to go back to an unconnected pre-digital world and anyone seriously suggesting we need to is not in touch with today's reality. Previously you'd have the support of the community and people around you who you'd see on a regular basis, but nowadays a higher proportion of personal interaction occurs online on social media sites, and that does change the interactions and support available. The "Why The Sudden Increase" section of this article includes the quote:

   "Traditional communities naturally meet many basic needs for emotional support"

and the move towards online interactions means we've lost a significant amount of that nowadays (Thanks to @MentalHealthCop for that link - I recommend following him if you're interested in the topic)

But perhaps we just need to get better at reading the problem signs and having an awareness and sensitivity to the issues I've written about in this article, although nowadays in a 140-character bite-sized world of low attention spans when it's trivial to move on to the next thing that comes around on our screens, it might be harder to actually spot them. Let's just try and retain our humanity and react sensitively instead of just being a label on a screen. You may be in a digital age, but remember that you are not just a number.


EDIT 30/6/2014: Facebook ran an experiment in 2012 that has generated a bit of controversy now with adjusting posts in people's news feeds to modify the priority based on certain emotionally charged words. See this article for details.


Footnote: I haven't really used Facebook for over six months now (actually the same is true of most other social networks too, but FB is the one I miss least). It's not for the reasons in this article, but mostly because I've got a bit bored of the non-optional feed filtering which Facebook have now removed as I mentioned earlier (they were useful for semi-muting people just sharing ten links a day - something hopefully improved if edgerank is now really preferring text posts) and the seemingly increasing number of content-free posts (such as the dinner photo example). Plus of course there are the reasons in my last blog entry. And I really wish that SMS messaging worked for PMs - it makes staying away harder (so maybe it's intentional!) The site seems to have gone downhill since the IPO (although I think timing-wise that's just coincidence) and it's no longer retaining it's user base as well. I'm missing more of the useful content now in my feed, unless I use lists as my main feed. And GIVE ME THE DAMN TICKER! - They still haven't added to my account. But maybe I'll go back, if only for the people who've said to me that they miss my style of posts :-)